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The food issue

Many people eat too much protein, and many others suffer from a lack of it

A data visualization
map of the world's protein consumptionmap of the world's protein consumption
Daily per capita protein supply, in grams (2017). The average person needs about 50 grams a day, depending on age, weight, activity level, and metabolism. Even in countries where the average is above this figure, many people are not getting sufficient amounts of protein.Data from FAOstat. Image by MS Tech

Our eating habits say a lot about us, and nowhere is that more true than in how we consume protein. Nearly a fifth of the world’s population doesn’t get enough of it, while people in richer countries take in far more than they need. People also tend to eat more meat as they get wealthier. That has big consequences for the environment: raising livestock requires huge amounts of land and crops and now creates nearly 20% of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

The United States and Europe have been stubbornly addicted to meat for decades, eating far more than the 50 grams per person per day that is the average requirement.

And China and Brazil have indeed upped their taste for flesh as their economies have grown:

But people aren’t necessarily fated to become carnivores as they rise from poverty. India’s population of over 1 billion people hasn’t changed its meat-eating habits much:

Even as India has grown richer:

It’s food for thought for any meat-eater.

About 2/5 of the land on earth (excluding Antarctica) is used to make food, and changing land use to feed cows and sheep that people then eat has an outsize impact:

Greener alternatives like insects and cultured meat get a lot of attention, but they’re still far pricier than commodity meats (and usually not nearly as tasty).

Asking entire cultures to abandon meat isn’t realistic. But neither is our current pace of consumption. We’re going to have to trim from somewhere.

The food issue

The food issue

This story was part of our January/February 2021 issue.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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