Rifkin has been a vegetarian since 1977, but he is not calling on the whole world to eschew animal products. Instead, he talks about encouraging conversation, and says it is ironic that the world’s wealthiest are often eating the least healthy foods, high up on the food chain, and suffering from diseases of affluence – type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.
“You can’t legislate this,” he said. “We need to encourage a robust conversation to move down the food chain and free up land from feed grain. …It’s hard to hear this in a lot of countries.”
According to the FAO, 40% of the food grown in the world today is feed for animals, and it says that figure is likely to increase to 60% in the next 20 years with the emergence of a growing global middle class who can afford to eat more meat and dairy.
“We have got a real problem with what we grow,” Rifkin said. “…This is the most inefficient way of feeding the human race.”
Water and land
One part of the problem is water – it is estimated that about 15,000 litres is needed to produce 1 kg of beef, compared to about 2,500 litres to produce 1 kg of rice – and Rifkin argues that in many parts of the world, agriculture is already seeing the impact of climate change in water shortages and flooding.
Meanwhile, 23% of the planet’s land is taken up with beef cattle, which produce vast amounts of methane emissions, and land is becoming more expensive and increasingly inaccessible for the poor.
“We are in real-time climate change. We are totally asleep… Nowhere is the impact greater than in agriculture,” he said.
Shift toward organic
Apart from growing more legumes and vegetables for direct human consumption, Rifkin also advocates a shift toward organic farming, and reforming the European system of farming subsidies to encourage such a shift.
“The price is still high. We are subsidising the food industry massively in Europe. Why don’t we shift the subsidies, moving toward organic farming, provide a step by step incentive to move toward organic farming?” he said.
His reasoning is partly to do with moving away from an oil-dependent economy toward one powered by more renewable energy sources, but it also based on eliminating inefficiencies in the supply chain – which would increase profits.
“Go to ecological-based sustainable agriculture and the price of production goes down, the marginal and fixed cost, and you replenish the land. And you give the end user products they’ll want. But you’ve got to make it worthwhile for the farmers and the food industry,” he said. “I’m for that. Incentivise the transition.”
Rifkin suggested that such a transition could take place over next 20 years in Europe, and added: “If we don’t do this, tell me how we’re going to be able to provide food when we’re seeing what’s going on all over the world. I don’t know if we’re too late. But I do know this is the only plan…It starts with food production. It starts with rethinking the basis of the food chain. Everything else will follow.”
To read more about Rifkin’s theory of a ‘third industrial revolution’, click here.