World hunger, energy, water — and the “obvious” solution

The Chairman of the world’s largest food company weighs in.

Mr. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (9-3-11, see link below) by Brian M. Carney (in Vevey, Switzerland), the chairman of Nestlé addresses the ever increasing problem of feeding the seven billion people on this planet — on its way to nine billion.

Exacerbating the problem of more mouths to feed, Mr. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe points out that we now have another one billion people in the emerging economies (India and China) who have access to meat for the first time. And why is that a problem? He states:

“The demand for meat,” he says, “has a multiplier effect of 10. You need 10 times as much land, 10 times as much [feed], 10 times as much water to produce one calorie of meat as you do to have one calorie of vegetables or grain.”

“It turns out that if we eat the way that promotes the best health for ourselves, we will also promote the best health for the planet.” Dr. T. Colin Campbell

He knows a great deal about the incredible inefficiency of a meat-based diet-style, but like so many of the world’s brightest and most powerful people, he doesn’t even mention the possibility of aggressively trying to increase the percentage of plant calories in our diets.

Clearly, according to his own numbers above, a sharp increase of more plant calories in our Western diets would do some wonderful things for the big three global problems we’re facing: world hunger, energy crisis and the availability of water. Like Julian Cribb in an earlier post, he is missing the obvious solution.

But in Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe’s case, even if he knew that ALL of the world’s seven billion people could survive and thrive on nothing but whole plant calories, it would obviously not be great for his huge, global business that “employs some 300,000 people, takes in some $100 billion a year in revenue—and yet represents just 1.5% of a global food industry that feeds billions.” It wouldn’t be great for his business as long as we have today’s rules, but if the rules should change…

So, as he should, the Nestlé chairman is trying to solve the looming issues as best he can. And that means trying to abolish the use of corn (ethanol) for auto fuel worldwide, embracing the use of genetically modified foods (GMO’s increase the yield of calories per acre), and putting a price tag on water. He makes a very good argument about the water.

“If oil becomes scarce,” he notes, “the oil price goes up. But if water does, well, we still pump the same amount. It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t cost. It has no value.” He drives this point home by connecting it back to biofuels: “We would never have had a biofuel policy—never,” he contends, “if we would have given water any value.” It takes, Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe says, “9,100 liters of water to produce one liter of biodiesel. You can only do that because water has no price.”

As the top food producer in the world, the Nestlé chairman seems to have a very good grasp on the most urgent issues that his company, and indeed the whole world, is facing. He is doing what any good business leader should be doing. He is pointing out all of the problems and arguing in favor of some sensible solutions — but once again, he is missing the obvious solution.

I would argue that, looking long-range, the obvious plant-based solution could be a good thing for his business. For even if we’re eating nothing but whole plants, we’re still going to need a food industry to grow them, harvest them, package them and deliver them to us. In the article, he describes his company’s reason for being:

Nestlé exists, Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe says, because as Europe’s population “urbanized,” as people moved to the cities and traded their ploughshares for time cards, “somebody had to ensure that people” who worked 12 hours a day in a factory could feed themselves.

For the first time in history, “you need[ed] a food industry. You need[ed] somebody who takes a product, who treats it so that its shelf life allows it to be transported, to be brought into the consumption center. That’s why we have canning, that’s why we have pasteurization, that’s why we have all these things.”

Now let’s play a little game of what if?

Dr. Sanjay Gupta with President Clinton---scene from "The Last Heart Attack."

Dr. Sanjay Gupta with President Clinton—scene from “The Last Heart Attack.”

  1. What if the world’s leaders got together and (with the help of Sanjay Gupta, Bill Clinton, Colin Campbell, and a few other prominent and credible experts) — came to the obvious conclusion that human beings should no longer be eating animals or their products?
  2. What if they suddenly realized that our consumption of those 60 billion animals a year is destroying our health, our environment, or our continued ability to feed the world?
  3. What if they connected all the dots and came to the unanimous, and obvious, conclusion that the way we are feeding ourselves is not only insane, but it is completely unsustainable for very much longer?
  4. Then what if they came up with a transition plan to steadily decrease our consumption of animal-based calories from where it is today to ZERO over the next twenty years?

Warren Buffett

This is why we need LEADERSHIP. We need for powerful individuals like Bill Clinton, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and Ted Turner to begin a series of small conferences where they play a few “what if” games of their own. The world needs to get real serious about these crucial issues and we need to do it soon.

Then, with a game-plan, the great business leaders like Mr. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe will know what to do. They will embrace the new rules of producing food, people will start getting healthier, our cost of health care will plummet, our environment will start to recover, and we’ll start feeding over ten times as many people with the same amount of land, water and energy that we’re using now.

Then, finally, we can begin to end the savage practice of torturing 60 billion animals a year for our dining pleasure. Following the wisdom of people like Einstein, Hippocrates and Leonardo da Vinci, our world leaders can get us back on the right track.

“The time will come when men such as I will look on the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.”

—Leonardo da Vinci

(See link to full WSJ article below)


Mr. Carney is editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe and coauthor of “Freedom, Inc.,” (Crown Business, 2009). The Weekend Interview with Peter Brabeck-Letmathe: Can the World Still Feed Itself? –

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Why should we be eating mostly plants? The “big picture” in 4 minutes.

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J. Morris Hicks, working daily to promote health, hope and harmony on planet Earth.

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—J. Morris Hicks, board member, T. Colin Center for Nutrition Studies

About J. Morris Hicks

A former strategic management consultant and senior corporate executive with Ralph Lauren in New York, J. Morris Hicks has always focused on the "big picture" when analyzing any issue. In 2002, after becoming curious about our "optimal diet," he began a study of what we eat from a global perspective ---- discovering many startling issues and opportunities along the way. In addition to an MBA and a BS in Industrial Engineering, he holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, where he has also been a member of the board of directors since 2012. Having concluded that our food choices hold the key to the sustainability of our civilization, he has made this his #1 priority---exploring all avenues for influencing humans everywhere to move back to the natural plant-based diet for our species.
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4 Responses to World hunger, energy, water — and the “obvious” solution

  1. Julian Cribb says:

    I don’t mind you referring to my talks or book on food security, Morris – but would you kindly stop misrepresenting what I say about the global diet? More plant foods, based on the 23000 edible plants we do not yet eat, are part of my solution.

  2. Mikal Musselman says:

    I have to say, that if you are not disturbed by the idea of GMO’s, than YOU may be missing the big picture. As you are always saying, we need to eat the diet that nature intended. GMO’s are anything but that. They promote the use of enormous amounts pesticides. And we are now seeing Round-up resistant super weeds as a result. I’m only touching on the issue. I hope you did do some research on the subject and included it in you book.

    • jmorrishicks says:

      Personally, I am disturbed about GMO. In the post, apparently the use of GMO’s increases the yield in terms of calories per acre. But an aggressive move toward whole plant-based foods would accomplish so much more — without the dangers of GMO’s. Best, J. Morris Hicks

  3. Donna Hughes says:

    It’s a wonderful Idea. We so need people who are highly visible and with the integrity to be listened to and believed enough so that what they say makes waves in spite of all the predjudices and prior conditioning of the public.

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