Serve over 18 billion meals daily. This is the challenge we must meet if we are to feed all members of the human community three square meals a day. There are now over six billion of us, and we all want to eat two, maybe three, meals a day. In America, the norm appears to be moving in the direction of one long, continuous “grazing period.”

Talk about grazing! One of my children brought home a hall pass from school a while back. It had slipped out of her pack, and I found it on the floor. Carefully filled out and signed by a teacher, the excuse for roaming the halls was “vending.” Yes, vending! Apparently breakfast, a before-school snack, lunch, and an after-school snack just don’t quite satisfy the way they used to.

The modern solution: a hall pass for “vending,” and yet another opportunity to buy some of the most expensive calories you can find anywhere on the planet.

Even when we eat at home, the important business of attempting to feed 6.2 billion humans poses difficulties that range far beyond the borders of our plates. All that plowing, sowing, growing, grazing, harvesting, processing, packaging, shipping, bagging, cooking, serving, eating, and cleaning up can make quite a mess! Short of serving fewer meals or eating a hell of a lot more oatmeal, is there a solution?

Serving fewer meals isn’t the answer. According the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization, about 700 million people are already going to bed hungry. Every day. Oatmeal, as much as I like it on a cold, grey morning and, as relatively benevolent as its production is, is probably not going to do the trick either. Fewer people doesn’t seem to be a reasonable option: even the lowest population projections call for continued population growth for the foreseeable future–probably to more than 8 billion. With falling per capita grain production, shrinking commercial fisheries, water shortages, and less land available for agriculture with each passing year, more food per capita, while possible, does not appear to be a solid bet.

This leaves us with the option of finding satisfaction with a different kind of meal. Smaller helpings, at least in America, might be part of a successful effort to feed the world. They would presumably lower U.S. healthcare costs, but even if all 280 million Americans ate less, would that leave enough for the remaining six billion? Probably not.

The solution to feeding more people appears to be to feed fewer animals. Other kinds of animals that is, particularly the bovine kind. It takes more than four pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef, says Professor David Pimentel at Cornell University. The WorldWatch Institute says it takes even more, about eight pounds of grain, to raise just one pound of feedlot beef.

We could all eat the occasional sacrificial lamb or fatted calf on feast days, but, for our daily bread we probably have to eat more, well, bread. Supplement this with a full complement of herbed veggies, saut?ed onions, beans, a little dairy, a few eggs, maybe a fish once and a while, and there might be enough calories to go around. Cut out the heifer-in-the-middle and all that grain feeds more mouths. Growing grain to feed our human billions, rather than cattle, requires less water, produces less erosion, and uses less energy. A lot less.

We can each tweak the menu as we go along, but eating more vegetable material and less meat appears to offer a more promising future.

This Earth Day, I’m renewing my commitment to eat a little “lower on the food chain.” Earth fare: food that’s healthier for me, produced without consuming the planet.

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