Global hunger – meat consumption is a prime driver

Hungry child

It’s a heart breaking problem. According to the UN 820 million people suffer from hunger. Starvation kills, and it hurts to have to go to bed malnourished and hungry. Hunger and malnutrition are some of the most serious problems facing humanity. Children are especially vulnerable. But there’s something we can do about it.

What many people don’t know is that it is meat consumption in the developed world, and rapidly rising meat consumption in the developing world, that are a prime driving force behind global hunger. For years this went unrecognized by even economists and policymakers.

To understand how a plant-based diet can help, let’s start with the agricultural facts of life. Farm animals function, in effect, as food factories in reverse; that is they give us much less nutrition than they are fed. For instance, a cow will give us as beef only 10% of the protein and 4% of the calories it consumes. The rest is used by the cow to enable it to live and breathe throughout its lifetime. Here in the U.S., we feed 70% of the crops we grow to farm animals, which then return only a fraction of the nutrition as meat. It’s all so wasteful. Even a third of the fish caught worldwide are used to feed farm animals. Yes, fish are fed to cows. With 60 billion farm animals raised globally each year, you can see just how much food is being wasted.

The  Vegetarian Solution

According to a recent scientific study the amount of food lost by feeding our crops to farm animals far exceeds the amount of food lost to waste. Another study showed, if society continues on a ‘business-as-usual’ meat centered trajectory, we will have to double the amount of crops grown by 2050. However, if we take the food that we currently feed to animals and feed them people instead, we would have enough extra to feed every hungry person.

Wasting food by feeding it to farm animals is helping fuel the global hunger crisis. With developing countries quickly changing from their traditional plant-centered diet to a western-style, meat-centered diet, it’s easy to see how hunger and malnutrition can spread. Many of these people live in countries which could feed themselves, but farmers, policymakers, and governments choose to feed crops to farm animals instead of people, so most of the nutrition is wasted. The result is that they often need to import grain to feed their human population. This is expensive and drives up prices. A rising global population makes wasting food this way even more harmful.

For far too long, many would not face the role of raising meat in the global hunger crises. Fortunately, this is now beginning to change. For instance, Nobel Prize winning economist Muhammad Yunis (famous for his program of making microloans to poor people in the developing world) explains, “Unfortunately, meat eating is a relatively inefficient use of natural resources, as the number of nutritious calories delivered by meat is far lower than the calories humans can enjoy through the direct intake of grains. Yet today, more and more grain and other foodstuffs are being used to feed cattle than human beings. And more and more of the planet’s farmlands are being diverted from the production of food for human consumption toward to the growing of grains for animal feed, adding several costly steps to the process. As a result even basic foods are becoming more expensive.”

By adopting a plant-based diet, we not only potentially make more food available for the world’s hungry, but as a nation we also take the single most important step towards improving our own health, as well as the health of the planet.