Mass Nutrition – Protein Per Acre

 

I have identified a few righteous and worthy causes that I have started on a journey to understand and invest in. Mass Nutrition is one of them.

IMG_0615 copyThis journey started when I was driving the with a business partner through the vast plains of Texas and he said “Did you know that making a half pound beef steak is the carbon equivalent of  driving a car 40 miles?” Until that moment, I hadn’t made that comparison, but I easily conceived it all as I thought through the process of raising cattle.  My grandfather had raised red angus cattle through my youth and I appreciated the costs (and smell) of the operation. My friend and I continued to talk. He knew ranchers who had thought about other livestock including ostrich. Anything without multiple stomachs is more environmentally friendly than a cow, but you also have to have a market, profitable unit price and a sustainable piece of land that fits the animals. It was an insightful conversation  where I formed the beginnings of the a problem statement that positioned “Cows on one end and Fast food french fries on the other”. This was a huge inter-connected problem that no one was holistically looking at.

During this same time I was working with a few corporate friends on establishing a big data promotional project where we would crunch a petabyte or two of data with the hopes of finding some insight that positively impacted the world in some way. During this brainstorming I refined the problem statement further into “C2C” or Carbon to Calorie chain. Everyone liked the concept, but were apprehensive about the sheer size of the problem. We chose another angle for the project, but by this time I was hooked on the topic. I continued for a few weeks to research, and I simplified the name to: “Mass Nutrition”.

Mass Nutrition is the study and optimization of human nutrition by looking at the entire value chain of food for a large population with an intent to improve it at a macro or micro level. Mass Nutrition includes the creation, consumption, profit, health, logistics, pesticides, garbage, and environmental impact of food. Based on a cursory search of the web, I believe I have coined the term “Mass Nutrition” here in this blog. I hope to advance this scope and perspective on this important topic. It is an important distinction that Mass Nutrition does not imply mass produced. Mass refers to the scope of the value-chain, not food production. So let’s explore Mass Nutrition.

The challenge with nutrition in America today, or what many call the western diet,  is that it is  mass produced, packed with chemicals, loaded with corn syrup/sugar, engineered for flavor, government subsidized, heavily regulated and inhumane to livestock. It is reasonably easy to agree that the state of our to-scale operation for food is both amazing in scale and completely sub-optimized for health and sustainability, but how do we improve upon it?  I remember playing the “human knot” game as a kid where we took 4-5 kids and made them interlock hands in knotted ways, then we tried to untie ourselves without letting go of our grip. Each time we tried to unknot a set of arms, there was some immovable object preventing its completion. It took everyone working together, even through a few sensitive moments, to eventually solve the puzzle. Similarly to improve Mass Nutrition, we have to find a path to collaboration, education, compromise, capitalism and consumerism. We have to vote with our wallets, and we have to find fair profit for investment at each link in the value chain or we fail to move the ball forward.

This is a broad topic which I hope to keep as an open, on-going dialog. Today I want to share a little research I did around the front end of the process, what I call “Protein Per Acre” (PPA).

The first thing you learn, when you start researching farming, is that it is not like corporate business, its organic and nothing is black or white. How much land does it take to raise a chicken? Hard to say because there are an endless number of variables. Is it a wet climate? Is it winter? Are they caged or free range? Are they Leghorns or Rhode Island Reds? What kind of feed will you use? Antibiotics? On and on. For the sake of helping set perspective, I have taken multiple days of  reading and calculations to generate a few key data points that I think you may find interesting.

Based on population, the food pyramid and other standards, I came to the statistic that the people of the USA require 35,163,760 lbs of protein every day to be healthy. That’s a lot of protein. Now, if we are wearing our Mass Nutrition Change Agent hats, our next question should be: “What creates the most optimal protein per acre of land?”

Protein Per Acre:
( the amount of protein that can be produced from a protein source per acre annually)

  • beef produces 15.6 lbs/ acre year
  • chicken produce 36 lbs/acre year
  • soybeans produce 263 lbs/ acre year
  • crickets produce 28,800 lbs/ acre year

 

Wow, we have a massive opportunity for innovation in protein! Right? Crickets, meal worms and other insects not only are a productive source of protein, they would vastly improve our health, and they are tasty. Doubt me? I recommend a trip to Mexico City, order the mealworms, you’ll think your eating a better form of Doritos. Delicious.

Continuing, if we used only beef as our sole source of protein we would need 823 million acres of via grazing land every year; chicken 356 million acres, soybeans 48 million acres, and crickets 445 thousand acres of land. Its important to note that my numbers for cricket are practically infeasible because no one has ever scaled cricket production to this scale or any scale close to this, but theoretically possible. Back to our story, cricket farming for protein, by my model, takes less than 0.05% the land required as for beef (or you could say 1,846X more productive). Our total farmland (422M acres) and pasture land (587M acres) extend beyond the land requirements above, so land optimization itself isn’t that motivating. However, how we use land and what we produce on land (like protien, oxygen, CO2, methane) do matter. My perspective is that there are two major insights that are right in front of our eyes, yet that most have not conceptualized and accepted as fact. Those are:

  1. We need more undeveloped natural lands to healthfully sustain this planet.
  2. Humans can almost instantaneously inundate our physical world and its resources, with our technology and man made exhaust. Consider everything from plastic to pir use of radio waves.

So why not just start eating cricket pâté? If you remember the human knot story, there are many interdependences to address and for something so big as Mass Nutrition, it requires millions of small movements. Let’s look at one problem that severely limits the adoption of this new finding.

Small farmers are some of the hardest working people on the planet. My grandparents were farmers and their necks were tan and hand’s chapped until the day they died. Even so there is a resurgence today in americans returning to farming. Both small farm operations and backyard barnyard’s are popping up all over the country. This is promising, but starting a farm is a risky business which requires years of leveraged funding for most. So surely the technology supports stronger operations, better yields and business management for new farmers? Absolutely, yet our consumption model are still “old-school” low tech. In other words, Americans love to eat beef and lots of it. We feed the demand chain as we feed ourselves. Additionally, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson raised beef, and were busy advancing the craft in 1770’s. We have studied beef and have mastered much of the balancing act to make it profitable. Even more disappointing when you look at the PPA numbers above.  So how profitable are these different type of protein sources? There are a range of data points on the web that provide a range of potential answers, but here’s a median ballpark for you which positions the proposition.

                          rev                  cost              profit

Beef                 $680,             $344,             $336

Chicken          $5,100          $4,648,           $461

Soybean         $585              $720               $-135

Crickets          $ 1000          $6160            $-5160

The dilemma becomes completely clear when you factor in a profit motive. Beef is in demand, and ranchers supply it as the best profit of any protein. If this weren’t enough, there are additional contributing factors. We subsidize commodities like corn, soybean, wheat which create incentives to over produce at negative returns, artificially funded by US taxpayers. The system is full of well intentioned direct attempts to solve a single problem in the inter-connected economy of food. We end up with taxpayer paying for silos of rotting corn and overweight children eating wholewheat crackers full of corn syrup.  Too many companies are too narrowly focused on profit in their product development decisions, but an honest profit must be available for better choices in our Mass Nutrition.

I want to add one more statistic for you. Kranti Mulik, UCS senior economist stated “Only about 2 percent of U.S. farmland is used to grow fruits and vegetables, while 59 percent is devoted to commodity crops.” This is because our policies, procedures and purchase patterns support the inertia of creating false markets around the commodity crops. Farmers want to grow vegetables, but it is an uphill battle. Take the time to watch Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food“, you owe it yourself to do so. I will end with the fact that we throw away 40% of the food we produce, creating our biggest source of methane gas.

So what can we do to right the ship?

 I want to present one simple beginning step that we are all empowered to do today. We can choose what we eat. We need to be more cognizant of the total cost of our consumption, and help ranchers and farms find profit in products that optimize Mass Nutrition. You are the consumer, the demand. You are immensely powerful. Michael Pollan says “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I am going to throw in my version “Eat vegetables, more often, and look for insects coming soon to a corner store near you.”

Footnote:  No Benny’s pizza was harmed in the making of this blog. Benny’s pizza is an awesome locally owned establishment here in Virginia, but their box is MASSive…

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