EVERY once in a while, some information comes along that makes you think about the big picture.
Such was the case with a report showing that the world quietly reached a milestone in the evolution of the human diet in 2011. For the first time in modern history, world farmed fish production topped beef production. And 2013 may well be the first year that people eat more fish raised on farms than caught in the wild.
It is calculated that world aquaculture had an output of 60 million tonnes compared to 57 million tonnes of beef in 2011. Global beef consumption now averages less than 9kg per head per year, down from 11kg in the 1970s, but fish at 19kg per head per year is up from 11kg in the 1970s and seems set to keep rising.
There is still some way to go before farmed fish overtakes the pig and poultry meat sectors, although its rate of growth is ahead of these protein sources – aquaculture is growing by nearly 6 per cent annually while poultry production is increasing by 4 per cent, pork by 1.7 per cent and beef is little changed.
There are obviously many reasons for the growth in fish consumption, including economic, cultural, health and environmental considerations. Growing prosperity is making fish more affordable, fish is touted as a healthy alternative to red meat, and in some countries beef production is blamed for environmental concerns such as destruction of rainforests or nutrient pollution.
There is also inevitably a limit to the removal of fish from wild fisheries. If demand for fish is to be met by increasing supply, aquaculture has to be the primary method.
But it prompts the question - is beef becoming uncompetitive with fish as a source of protein? Should far-sighted beef producers be contemplating installing ponds to produce fish instead?
The source of these figures is a US environmental group which, unlike many of its contemporaries, uses data from credible sources such as the US Department of Agriculture and UN Food and Agricultural Organisation to argue its points.
It argues that not only are wild fisheries reaching their limits, so is pasture production of beef. It claims “much of the world’s grassland is stocked at or beyond capacity”, leading to increasing reliance on feedlot production.
On the assumption that this will eventually be true, even if it is an exaggeration currently, it is therefore significant that cattle consume 7kg of grain to produce an additional kilogram of beef, pigs 3.5kg, chickens 2kg and fish just over 1kg. If feedlots are competing with aquaculture as future protein production factories, the odds are against beef enjoying a reversal of fortune.
Some argue that unlike chickens and pigs, cattle have never been seriously bred for feed conversion efficiency. An improvement in feed conversion of similar proportions to that seen in chickens and pigs over the past few decades would make a monumental difference to the cost of feedlot beef production.
Yet even if that were to occur, and it would be an epic task, it is not likely beef will ever match fish when it comes to feed conversion. Cattle are simply too different.
This does not mean it will be all plain sailing for aquaculture. Some of the popular farmed fish, like salmon and prawns, are carnivorous species that eat fishmeal or fish oil produced from fish in the wild. Aquaculture is thought to be responsible for more than half of all mangrove loss, mostly for prawn farming. And large scale fish farms share the problem with feedlots of needing to dispose of a great deal of animal waste.
The beef industry does not necessarily face a dark future. But it would be wise to acknowledge that its competitiveness against other sources of protein will have a very considerable impact on its long term size and prosperity. Being overtaken by fish is a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted.
David Leyonhjelm has been an agribusiness consultant for 25 years. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org