How does eating a sirloin steak, pork chop, or hamburger affect starving children in Ethiopia? You probably wouldn’t think there could be a connection whatsoever, would you? But there is. Many times, a distinct connection. It begins with a better understanding of just how and where that type of food is produced. There are either direct implications or indirect. Let’s begin with direct. All meat, including the types mentioned above that you may be eating today, begins as part of a live animal—cow, pig, turkey, chicken, lamb, etc. And that animal had to live somewhere for 12 to 24 months, consuming land, air, water, and in most cases grain and other plant foods. Many of the animals raised in the world are pastured or fed plant foods that were grown in developing countries where a large number of their own people are starving. To me, it is a tragic reality that over 1.1 billion people in the world are suffering from lack of food and 82% of these people live in countries where food is exported to feed animals in other countries. Currently over 25% of all the agricultural land in undeveloped countries is being used to grow crops such as linseed, cottonseed, and rapeseed that are being fed directly to livestock. This number has tripled since the 1950’s. So while people are hungry and suffering in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Angola, or elsewhere in the world, a good portion of their own crops are being exported to the U.K. and European countries to feed livestock that is then slaughtered and eaten by more well off individuals–many times ending up on plates in the U.S. All fueled by your and the rest of the world’s demand to eat meat. If you did not ask for it, meat and the systems to produce it would not exist.
Additionally, the land that is utilized to raise animals in any country, but especially in these underdeveloped locations, is in most cases used quite inefficiently. Instead of pasturing cattle and growing crops to feed these animals, this land could be put to better use by growing a variety of plants to directly feed humans, producing minimally 10 to 20 times the amount of food. That would certainly go a long way to feed starving children—and plant based foods would be undeniably healthier for them to eat.
Indirectly, the meat that you choose to eat, more than likely, had come from an animal that consumed grains and vegetables–plants that could have otherwise been used to directly feed those starving people in other countries (knowing that the crops fed to livestock could have been, instead, quite easily grown as plants that are edible for humans). In 2007, there was considered a “record harvest” of grain in the world with over 2.1 billion tons being produced. Great news, but the difficulty was that over half of this, or 1.2 billion tons, was fed to livestock! The inefficient chain of using land, food, and other resources on earth to raise animals to then slaughter and eat needs to be stopped. If the agricultural land in the world were used more efficiently to grow crops for us to directly eat, clearly more people could be fed, less land and other resources would be needed and therefore world hunger would be significantly lessened. Following conversion to full plant-based agriculture and more sustainable farming techniques; those impoverished countries would more likely be able to solve their hunger situation. If they still had difficulty meeting the needs of their people then it would be no great difficulty for the U.S. or other countries who have also made the conversion away from animal agriculture, to export some of our plant food surpluses to them, instead of for example sending it to Mexico to provide for the growing number of cattle or pig operations across our border. It needs to be remembered that 6 million children will die this year from lack of food. Either way, directly or indirectly, the meat you choose to eat will likely have a large impact on global food supply—which ultimately affects world hunger.
Certainly lack of knowledge of sustainable farming techniques, prolonged periods of drought, and not enough women found in the agricultural work force all have affected the plight of various countries where high percentages of hunger can be found. This is especially true in Africa. But most of these issues can be overcome with teaching and implementing proper organic techniques and placing all land used for agriculture into growing plant-based foods.
There are basically two types of farming in the world: commercial and subsistence. While less than 2% of the U.S. population make their living from agriculture, nearly 45% of the rest of the world do. Of this 45%, approximately 250 million subsistence farmers use a slash and burn method of agriculture called swidden. This technique is prevalent in the majority of developing countries in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. In the areas of Africa most stricken with hunger, swidden methods are employed where land is cleared and burned, crops are grown for only one to three years, livestock are raised, and then this land is rendered useless so the process repeats itself on a new patch of land. This results in not only poor crop yields and less than optimal food from animals products, but also the more insidious loss of land fertility due to overgrazing, compaction, erosion, depletion of soil nutrients, and eventual desertification. With an emphasis on education for these subsistence farmers, more sustainable farming techniques could be employed—replacing swidden methods and livestock with plants to be used directly for human consumption which would improve long-term soil health and eventual yields. In Kenya and other areas of East Africa where water availability is limited, farmers using drought resistant leguminous cover crops (those crops planted to increase soil fertility) without raising livestock, have already seen yields tripled.
And then we have the U.S., where animals raised for slaughter consume over 70% of all grain produced in our country (over 90% of all the corn produced). In fact, it is estimated that more than twice as much grain is grown and fed to livestock than would feed all of the people in our country. This is, of course, without regard for how many people elsewhere in the world that are starving. Because, after all, how could eating a steak, hot dog, or meat loaf, in America have anything to do with what is happening in Ethiopia?
More about the global effect of our food choices can be found in “Comfortably Unaware.”