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.