DiscussionsLoaves and fishes in reverse: Global hunger and the meat-based diet
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By James Van Alstine

How can a hamburger feed a hungry village? It’s a sort of biblical loaves and fishes miracle. Well, loaves anyway. The fishes were likely added later as a Christian analogy. To feed the village, we’ll need to multiply that hamburger. To accomplish this modern miracle, we need only follow the burger back up through its production process and return to grain. A quarter pound of beef requires four pounds of grain, 650 gallons of water and 55 square feet of forest.1 We could instead take that same four pounds of grain and bake eight loaves of bread weighing a pound each.2 If each loaf is shared among three people, 24 people are fed; a small village, but a fed village.

One big rice bowl

Is it really the same grain fattening the rich that could be feeding the poor? Very often, it turns out to be so. A century and a half ago, Ireland was ravaged by famine. The poor had come to depend upon a single crop, the potato and when that crop failed, millions hungered. Since those events, people have attempted to understand the forces that led to the Great Famine. Throughout the peak famine years of the 1840’s, Ireland exported beef to the affluent of England while the Irish peasantry gnawed on the grass of roadside ditches. It is a social injustice some go so far as to call genocide. But that was years ago in an age of empire and callous industrial times. Contemporary famine must me different, right?

Sadly the pattern of famine in food exporting lands continues. In 1984, at the peak of Ethiopia’s worst famine year in living memory that impoverished African land was exporting plant crops for use as feed for European livestock.3

Ethiopia was not an isolated incident. Around 80 percent of the world’s 150 million malnourished children live in countries with food surpluses, much of which is used as feed for animals who become the food of affluent people.4

As economies become evermore global, the links between consumption patterns in developed countries become more tangibly linked to the economies of struggling developing lands. In a world where 840 million people are malnourished and six million children age five and under die each year of hunger, the question of animal product consumption is not a mere matter of taste but a crucial issue of social justice.

“The consumption by a privileged few of grain-fed beef [and other animal products] while millions go without the minimum daily caloric requirements is one of the most critical issues confronting contemporary civilization,” wrote Jeremy Rifkin. “The politics of diet is essential to addressing the question of human survival in the coming century.”5

The cry of the poor

How is it that so much needed food is going to livestock feed? Author Joel Cohen explains, “They [the poor] cannot compete for grain with the cattle and chickens of the world’s wealthy people. The extremely poor are irrelevant to international markets; they are economically invisible. But they are people nonetheless.”6

Sadly, the very forces that should and might have encouraged plant-based subsistence farming often urged leaders of developing nations to follow the wasteful pattern of western animal-based food production.7 The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are among the agencies that have driven poor countries up the protein ladder toward unsustainable animal agriculture.8

The agribusiness giants of the United States and Europe, rather than the hungry of the world, are those who benefit from exporting the animal agriculture production model. Multinational corporations including Ralston Purina and Cargill (a top US meat producer) have been given incentives to set up grain-fed poultry operations in poor countries.9 In a new twist on this exploitive theme, Monsanto (PCBs, Agent Orange, Bovine Growth Hormone) has of late been dumping genetically modified grain into the developing world and buying up seed companies while Europe refuses the stuff and American consumers grow more skeptical of Frankenfoods.10

Whenever a famine spikes in the developing world, the evening news is briefly rich with images of cargo planes shipping vital grain to famished masses. American hearts swell with pride and deservedly so. Such emergency airlifts bring staple grains directly to people in need, saving countless lives. It is when the emergency is abated and the routine of first-world over third-world economic development is practiced that imprudence reigns. Two thirds of all the grain exported from the United States serves as feed for livestock instead of vital staple food for poor people.11

Bread or burgers

Can’t we feed the hungry and the livestock too? If all the greed and imprudence of the world were instantly cured, perhaps we could have it both ways, but not for long. Author and Cornell professor, David Pimentel has crunched the numbers on land and water use, agricultural production, and human population and concludes farms won’t meet world food needs if current patterns continue. Quality undeveloped farmland is scarce. Higher yields have seen their peak. Although today’s wheat varieties produce four times the yield of 1940’s varieties, Pimentel says: “Any plant geneticist can rapidly improve a traditional variety of grain, but it’s much harder to continue to improve plants that are already yielding several times more than their predecessors.”12

Many believe a crucial decision looms before us: livestock or people. “As the population rises, structural global famine will be avoided only if the rich start to eat less meat,” writes George Monbiot. “Within as little as 10 years, the world will be faced with a choice: arable farming either continues to feed the world’s animals or it continues to feed the world’s people. It cannot do both.”13

A significant shift to a vegan diet holds great hope of making a species-saving difference. If all the world immediately became vegan, the picture of future sustainability in world food supplies improves greatly. “Right now, only four billion of the world’s 5.6 billion are adequately nourished,” says David Pimentel, “but if the entire world switched to a vegan diet, our food production could properly nourish seven billion people.”14

Although vegan power can save the world’s hungry, caution need be applied. Switching from a meat- based diet to a vegan diet would free huge amounts of plant crops, agrarian land, water and other resources, but there is no guarantee that these resources would shift to serve the poor. Rather, greed could prevail and the resources could simple fall out of production or shift to some other unimaginably wasteful consumption pattern serving the wealthy of the world. On the brighter side lies hope and potential. Compassionate consumption acted upon in the choice of a vegan diet opens the possibility of a well-fed world through generations to come. As our village grows to seven billion people, every vegan extends a compassionate hand to the world’s hungry today and extends a ray of hope for people everywhere in years to come.


1. John Robbins, May All Be Fed, p. 33, Rain Forest Action Network, www.ran.org/info_center/factsheets/s10.html,  & Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappe

2. Based on several wheat bread recipes and a conversion of 1.5 C flour to .5 lbs of grain or flour.

3. Jeremy Rifkin, The world’s problems on a plate, The Guardian, UK, May 17, 2002

4. Ibid and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), www.fao.org

5. Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture, 1992, p. 156

6. Joel E. Cohen, How Many People Can the Earth Support?, p. 30 Norton and Sons, cited by Erik Marcus, Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating, p. 166, McBooks Press

7. Rifkin, p. 155

8. Rifkin, p. 155 and 162

9. Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins, Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity, Ballantine Books, p. 92

10. George Monbiot, Market enforcers: Biotech firms found persuasion didn't work, so they are using a new tactic: coercion, The Guardian, UK, August 21, 2001 http://www.guardian.co.uk/gmdebate/Story/0,2763,539967,00.html

11. Jeremy Rifkin, The world’s problems on a plate, The Guardian, UK, May 17, 2002

12. Marcus, p. 163

13. George Monbiot, Why vegans were right all along: Famine can only be averted if the rich give up meat, fish and dairy, The Guardian, UK, December 24, 2002, www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,864995,00.html

14. Marcus, p.166

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