To obtain meat, 10 times as much grain as that meat is needed
Problems related to food are changing over time. With respect to the total amount of calories, it is not the case that there is an absolute shortage worldwide. Based simply on calculations, the amount of crops produced is sufficient to feed everyone in the world. However, as people from advanced countries lavishly eat meat that was produced by using large quantities of grains as feedstuff, in reality, they do not sufficiently reach people in developing countries. That is to say, this problem should be considered as a “food” problem rather than a “staple food” problem.
In advanced countries, which are mostly found in the Northern Hemisphere, many people are ruining their health by eating too much, while in developing countries in the Southern Hemisphere, many are suffering from hunger. Thus, the food problem is sometimes expressed as “satiation in the north, hunger in the south.” Moreover, in advanced countries, in order to gain fatty meats, it is often the case that they give abundant grains to livestock animals and raise them in the highly-concentrated environment with suppressed movements. Thus, it is seen as problematic from the animal welfare point of view as well.
When compared with food of plant origin such as vegetables, characteristics of meat are that it contains proteins with moderate elasticity and lots of inosinic acid and glutamic acid, which provide umami, and has fattiness. Therefore, when meat goes into our mouth, we first feel the mellowness of the fat, and then the moderate firmness followed by the sensation of strong umami. So, we feel lots of satisfaction and tend to eat too much. This is partially causing many people in advanced countries to take in too much fat from overeating meats. In advanced countries, the average calorie intake per day goes beyond 2,700 kcal, and they tend to eat too much. However, Japan is the only country where people are eating appropriate amounts (2,200-2,700 kcal). Although the reason for this is not entirely clear, it is considered that it owes a lot to the difference in food culture.
The food problem can be solved if we substantially control meat production and if everybody eats grains proactively. However, it is extremely difficult to achieve this in reality. It is impossible to control the strong desire and the corresponding action of people in advanced countries with financial strength to eat what they like even if it costs them a lot. They cannot be restricted by rules, etc. Then, what should we do? I think that the key to the solution lies in Japanese cuisine (washoku). Washoku is not only delicious, but is nutritious and healthy cuisine. If we make use of the power of washoku well, we might be able to prevent excessive eating by people in advanced countries.
Developing menus inspired by Japanese food that can satisfy Western people as well
The key to solving the food problem lies in the ingredients of washoku. One of them is fish. Japanese do not eat too much meat when compared with other advanced countries because they consume lots of fish. Besides so-called blue-backed fish, red-meat fish such as bonitos and tunas contain lots of amino acid called histidine, which suppresses the appetite. Moreover, this histidine encourages fat metabolism. For a period of time a phrase saying “if you eat fish you become smart” was fashionable. When we eat such fish we can be satisfied with a small amount and it prevents us from gaining weight.
Having said that, we can eat tasty fish in Japan with ease because the infrastructure to distribute fresh fish is arranged well and the technology to treat them is also advanced. When fish is no longer fresh, histidine is sometimes changed to histamine by microbes. As histamine is a cause of food poisoning, we need to be careful of the freshness. Sushi, etc., as well as sashimi are internationally popular. However, only in Japan do people eat this much raw fish. In addition, as natural fish has catch quantity limitations, it cannot respond to the increasing world population. Cultivation also seems to have lots of challenges.
For example, bluefin tuna and salmon, which are also cultivated in Japan, are appreciated in Europe and the United States as well. However, when I talked to people in the field, there also seem to be lots of obstacles. Bluefin tunas are very much “foodies” and they only eat what they like. Besides, they have a big appetite. It is also part of their nature that they will die if they do not keep swimming. Thus, what was fed to them cannot efficiently lead to growth of them. As a result, the production cost is high. Although salmon is much more efficient than bluefin tuna, they directly capture the odor of water and food, and moreover, the water temperature should not be high. Thus, controlling them is a lot of hassle.
We have another representative washoku ingredient. That is soybeans. I have a lot of expectations for this ingredient. Besides being an ingredient of tofu, natto, miso, and soy sauce, the soybean has a good amount and quality of protein and is nutritious. Moreover, it is a healthy ingredient containing dietary fiber which is not included in meat. It also contains isoflavone, a component that shows effects like a female hormone (estrogen), and this seems to contribute to the suppression of breast cancer and prostate cancer in Japanese people.
It is also a big advantage that we do not need to use so much nitrogen fertilizers when growing soybeans. If we use excessive fertilizers, they will drain into rivers, which will lead to environmental issues. However, soybeans can fixate atmospheric nitrogen by their bacteria called nodule bacteria which is parasitic in their roots. Indeed, it is an ingredient which is friendly to people and the earth.
However, in Europe and the United States, there is not much of a custom of eating soybeans directly. In the U.S. it is normally used as food for livestock and often not regarded as an ingredient for people. Therefore, with my students, I am working on developing menus which Western people also find tasty, by introducing cooking skills for Japanese cuisine, using soybeans as an ingredient. Plant-based meat is also attracting attention for a similar reason. However, there are still few recipes for tasty menus. So, if we create and release something that gives satisfaction, it should be of help to solving the food problem.
If the knowledge of food spreads, the food problem will substantially make progress toward a solution
Perhaps there is no magic bullet that can immediately tackle the food problem. It would not work well if we did not implement various strategies all together at the same time. It is necessary not only to spread Japanese food but also to take a comprehensive approach.
I think that food education will become even more important from now on. It is important that we nurture from our childhood the awareness to understand food from the larger framework, including environmental problems, and not only from the perspective of gourmet and nutritional supply. We are inclined to eat tasty or preferred food. This was expressed by Professor Emeritus of Kyoto University FUSHIKI Toru as “human beings are eating with their brains.” This means, whatever you eat, if you have knowledge of the food, it tastes good. If a broad knowledge of food, such as superior nutrition and the global-scale advantage of each ingredient, spreads to the public through food education, I expect that people will start to be able to think ethically, and there will be a change overall.
It is possible to take measures in our daily lives. If so-called “yuru vege” people (or flexitarian = flexible vegetarian), who think “today, let’s eat plant-based food only and refrain from meat” increase, we should be able to suppress the consumption of meat globally without too much difficulty. If we control the consumption of meat moderately and if people secure and cook grains that were used as food for livestock, I think the food problem will progress towards a solution.
Cultured meat, which has been attracting attention in recent years, still has prohibitively expensive production costs. Thus, any practical application is expected to be far off into the future. However, because it does not deprive animals of their lives, from the perspective of animal welfare, it is a method which is drawing expectations. Besides, as soon as the cell that becomes the core is gained, it can be cultivated in an aseptic condition. No bacteria or virus can enter, and thus it can be eaten fresh. In general, we like soft and moist fresh foods. While Japanese like seafood, quite a few Western people like rare meat. Thus, if low-cost cultivated meat becomes available to eat safely uncooked, it may generate great demand.
To solve the food problem, improvement of food system is also necessary. The food system refers to the sequence of the food supply from production, distribution, retail, to when it reaches our mouths. When we think in terms of cooking, we tend to focus on how we cook and how to make food tasty, but we need to keep making efforts to improve issues that exist in each process. And above all, we need to make a world which allows ethical consumption, where each individual, which is the ultimate destination of the food system, will gain various knowledge about food, and can select food while taking food problems and the global environment into consideration. To that end, from now on I would like to convey what I understand to be right, by considering the food problem from diverse points of view.
* The information contained herein is current as of August 2023.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.
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