New research suggests that if the desire was there, this country could grow food to feed over 700 million people — by focusing on plants. That could meet the needs of most of the world’s hungry population.
If U.S. farmers took all the land currently devoted to raising cattle, pigs and chickens and used it to grow plants instead, they could sustain more than twice as many people as they do now, according to a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
We’ve often written in the past about the health, environmental and animal welfare problems associated with meat production. But at this time of year, let’s take a moment to remember the workers who often face very exploitative and harsh conditions in that industry as well. Please visit our posts on slaughterhouse workers, fishing boat workers and the famous labor leader Cesar Chavez to learn more.
The Feds have finally admitted that veg diets are better for the environment. The USDA Advisory Committee tried to slip it into their 571 page recommendation: “The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts,and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health-promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”
This sounds like real progress to us, but don’t look for this statement to make it into the final recommendations. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack won’t allow it and the meat industry, described as livid, vowed to block it in Congress. Still, just the fact that it was recommended in the first place is real progress.
While it’s a start, the world needs much more progress on this issue. Consider that raising the 60 billion livestock we now have on the planet earth uses, directly for themselves and indirectly to grow their feed, one third of all the arable land on the planet. It is also one of the leading causes of water pollution, the number one cause of tropical rainforest destruction, soil erosion, and, according to researchers from the World Bank, the number one cause of global warming.
Since we last reported on the drought in California and how a vegetarian diet could help, the drought has only gotten worse. As Californians cut residential water use by 25 percent under Governor Jerry Brown’s unprecedented mandatory restrictions, pressure on the drought-stricken state’s water resources continues to come from its robust agriculture industry, which accounts for about 80 percent of the state’s total water consumption, with livestock claiming the lion’s share.
Some of the vegetarian naysayers complain that since so much of California’s meat is eaten around the country, it would take a national effort to save California’s water. To this we reply, good idea! Let’s all do our part and go vegetarian to save California from an all-too-thirsty fate. Others point to global warming as the main culprit. Maybe so, but we have a diet for that as well.
While we are happy to get the word out about the environmental benefits of going vegetarian, we really wish the environmental organizations would join us. So far only a very few do. However, since even the government is starting to talk about the environmental impact of animal foods, we have high hopes that this omission will change in the not too distant future.
Remember when educating people about their food choices was considered a good thing? Remember when whistleblowers were considered heroes deserving of extra protection? Unfortunately a number of states have introduced legislation that would keep the public from learning what happens on factory farms and slaughterhouses, and would criminalize the gathering of information through photography and video recording.
The animal agriculture industry obviously believes it has something to hide. In recent years, whistleblowing employees have repeatedly exposed animal abuse, unsanitary and disease promoting conditions, unsafe working conditions, and environmental problems on industrial factory farms and slaughterhouses. The agribusiness industry’s response to these exposés has not been to work on preventing such problems from occurring in the future, but rather to try to prevent the American people from finding out about their wrong-doings in the first place. Some of these laws have quite the bite to them. For instance the Missouri ag-gag law imposes a 6 month – 4 years prison sentences on violators.
These laws are opposed by a rather diverse set of organizations including the Humane Society of the United States, Farm Sanctuary, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the Natural Resources Defense Council and even the National District Attorneys Association.
Thankfully so far only Iowa, Utah, and Missouri have passed the proposed ag-gag laws, while states such as New York, Illinois, Florida, Nebraska, Tennessee and Indiana have declined to enact these laws. In some states, such as Minnesota, a decision is still pending.
In the meantime, vegetarian food choices provide the healthiest, most compassionate and environmental sustainable way to go. While exposés and undercover videos can be effective in some cases in getting agribusinesses to change their practices, purchasing decisions will always speak the loudest in the food industry.
It’s official. The world’s population now stands at 7 Billion. This year our Thanksgiving diners face challenges as never before. Over a billion people are living with chronic hunger and malnutrition, and rising food prices are challenging the household budgets of the other 6 billion. 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 the prime driving forces behind rising food prices and global hunger. For years this went unrecognized by even economists and policymakers. However, this has now started to change.
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 and it’s getting worse. Global hunger is at an all time high, with about 1 billion people in the world going to bed each night still hungry. In the next year, over 10 million people will actually starve to death. Even worse, it is the children who are the most vulnerable.
To understand how a vegetarian 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 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 who then return only a fraction of it as meat. It’s all so wasteful. Even a third of the fish caught worldwide are used to feed farm animals. With 56 billion farm animals raised globally each year, you can see just how much food is being wasted.
Wasting food by feeding it to farm animals fuels 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.
The recent shift of using some agricultural products, such as corn, to produce ethanol fuel for automobiles, makes switching to a vegetarian diet even more imperative. Now more than ever, the world’s hungry are counting on us to use available crops directly for food rather than wasting them by feeding them to farm animals.
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.” And, no less than Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernake, says that “As they eat more beef and less grains and so on, the demand for food and energy rise and that’s the primary long-term factor affecting the real price of commodities and food.” A recent feature story in Foreign Policy magazine highlighted meat’s role in rising food prices, and a survey of economists reveal “increased demand for meat” as a leading cause of rising food prices and global hunger.
Don’t get distracted from the agricultural facts of life. Natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and floods grab headlines, and are a factor in food shortages. Warfare and political instability grab attention too, and can decrease the food supply. But it’s the day-in and day-out wasting of food, by feeding it to farm animals, that’s driving the massive global hunger and malnutrition problem. Sure food gets wasted and sure there’s poverty. But food has always been wasted, and there’s always been poverty, yet global hunger is getting worse. What’s changed is that meat consumption is sky rocketing in the developing world, which is using up crops that could be used for human consumption. With few exceptions, those countries with chronic hunger and malnutrition problems could feed themselves, if they would only stop taking their crops and feeding them to animals, and make them available for people instead. Yes, the world’s population is rising quickly, and that puts pressure on global food supplies, but a vegetarian diet could easily support a world population much larger than today’s. With a rising population, the only sustainable way out of the global hunger crisis is by reducing meat consumption and becoming vegetarians.
It may seem that one person can’t make much difference, but one person eats three meals a day, 365 days of the year. If that person eats meat at most meals, then by switching to a vegetarian diet, they would be saving over a thousand meat meals. The grain and other crops used for that meat could be used to produce 12,000 well balanced vegetarian meals, so you can see how it adds up pretty quickly. In fact, according to Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University, “if Americans alone took the food currently fed to farm animals in the United States, we would have enough food to feed the entirety of the world’s hungry, and we could do it without plowing even one extra acre of farmland.”
More than just healthy and delicious, adopting a vegetarian diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and legumes is also an act of charity for those who need it the most. And, as is often the case with charity, those who give also receive. By adopting a vegetarian diet, we would not only potentially make more food available for the world’s hungry, but as nation we would also be taking the single most important step towards improving our own health as well as the health of the planet. Now that’s a thanksgiving dinner all of us can be truly grateful for.