Beef to Fish: A Historic Shift in Food Production
The human diet is evolving as world farmed fish production has over taken beef production. Reports from 2012 show that 66 million tons of farmed fish were produced in comparison to 63 million tons of beef and experts are predicting that this year may be the first year that people eat more farm-raised fish than those caught in the wild.
Annual beef production climbed from 19 million tons in 1950 to more than 50 million tons in the late 1980s. Over the same period, the wild fish catch ballooned from 17 million tons to close to 90 million tons. But since the late 1980s, the growth in beef production has slowed, and the reported wild fish catch has remained essentially flat.
As the global demand for animal protein grows, it is evident that humans will put stress on the world's rangelands and oceans. Producing these foods can be sustainable, but in a world whose population is nearing 7 billion, concentrated operations have become the norm - and fish tend to be more efficient in raising than beef in terms of pounds they consume to pounds they produce.
In the United States, where the amount of meat in peoples' diets has been falling since 2004, average consumption of beef per person has dropped by more than 13 percent and that of chicken by 5 percent. U.S. fish consumption has also dropped, but just by 2 percent.
So why are people choosing fish over beef in the first place? Beyond economic considerations, health and environmental concerns are also influencing peoples' choices to reduce their beef intake. While fish are perceived as healthy alternatives (except for certain species that have accumulated high amounts of mercury), diets heavy in red meat have been associated with a higher risk for heart disease and colon cancer.
Beef production has also been associated with having a large carbon footprint and for destroying habitat. Beef not only takes a lot of time and energy to produce, but feed and feedlots cause serious pollution problems. One being when excess nitrogen fertilizer applied to corn feed which feeds the cows ends up in waterways which can creates large algal blooms and low-oxygen "dead zones" where fish cannot survive.
Currently, on a per person basis, beef consumption averages less than 20 pounds each year globally, whereas world fish consumption amounts to 42 pounds per person with predictions that fish consumption is set to keep rising.
Read more at Earth Policy Institute.
Surf and turf image via Shutterstock.