Despite the rich diversity of foods found all over the world, one third of its population does not have enough to eat. Around 6 billion people share the planet, one quarter in the rich north and three quarters in the poor south. While people in rich countries diet because they eat too much, many in the developing world do not have enough food simply to ensure their bodies work properly and stay alive.
826 million people around the world are seriously undernourished - 792 million people in developing countries and another 34 million in industrialized countries. Two billion people - one third of the global population - lack food security. Today, some 12 million children die annually of nutrition-related diseases.
THE ROOTS OF HUNGER
The developing world hasn't always been hungry. Early explorers of the 16th and 17th centuries often returned amazed at the huge amounts of food they saw there. In parts of Africa, for example, people always had three harvests in storage and no one went hungry. The idea of buying and selling food was unheard of.
The Industrial Revolution changed all that. European countries needed cheap raw materials such as coal and iron ore that developing countries had plenty of. Through the process of invasion and colonization, Western countries could not only take the raw materials but claim the land as their own and make the indigenous people pay taxes or rent. Poor peasants (many of whom had never dealt in money before) were forced to grow crops such as cotton to sell to their new masters. Wealthy countries owned the land, all the food that was produced, and decided the price. After paying taxes, peasants had little money left to buy this expensive food and often ended up borrowing money simply to live. This whole process of colonization continued right up to the beginning of the last century.
Drought and other 'natural' disasters are often wrongly blamed for causing famines. Local people have always planned for freak acts of nature and although they may be the trigger that starts a famine, the underlying cause is the system of modern day neo-colonialism.
The land in poor countries is still largely not owned by the people who work on it and rents are high. Huge areas are owned by large companies based in the West. It is common for people to be thrown off the land, often going to the towns where there is little other work. About 160,000 people move from rural areas to cities every day. Many migrants are forced to settle in shanty towns and squatter settlements.
Much of this land is used to grow “cash crops” for export - like coffee, tobacco and animal feed - rather than to grow food for indigenous people. Countries agree to grow cash crops in order to pay off their crippling debts.
Why are countries in debt? During the 1970s, developing countries were lent money by developed countries for a range of projects, including infrastructure development (e.g. dams and roads), industrialization and technology. The World Development Movement (WDM) states, “Often the projects turned out to be unproductive.” The loans were either multilateral (i.e. the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund lending to one government) or bilateral (i.e. one government lending to another).
Then in the 1980s, interest rates rocketed because of the oil crisis, while at the same time, industrialized countries put high prices on many agricultural imports so that developing world farmers were not able to sell their produce. Consequently, developing countries were unable to pay off their loans and they have become increasingly indebted. These countries are paying back billions of dollars to the West in interest payments each year.
Often, the loans had conditions attached. When Costa Rica borrowed money from the World Bank, one of the conditions set was that they had to cut down rainforest and clear land for cattle grazing to supply rich countries with cheap beef. The destruction of rainforests is a disaster not just for its people and wildlife but for the world's climate.
Between 1975 and 1985, thousands of acres of forest were cleared in Thailand to grow tapioca to sell to the EU as feed for pigs and cattle. When beef and pork mountains meant that not as much meat was being produced, Europe no longer needed tapioca and stopped buying. This put Thai peasants into huge debt because they had borrowed money to spend on improving their farms to grow enough to meet demand. As a consequence, many people sold their children into child labor and prostitution.
IN THE HANDS OF THE RICH
After extensive lobbying, the IMF and the World Bank set up the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) in 1996 with the apparent aim of alleviating debt burdens. Some bilateral lenders have agreed to write off 100 percent of the debts owed to them when the countries in question complete the Initiative. When countries get half way through (called the Decision Point), they receive partial relief on their annual debt service payments.
In order to receive debt relief through the HIPC initiative, developing countries have to get a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) agreed by the IMF and the World Bank.
PRSPs replace “Structural Adjustment Programmes” (SAPs), which were imposed on developing countries as part of their loan packages. These forced governments to reduce public spending and promote their export industries, in theory releasing more money for debt repayment. Unsurprisingly, a number of studies showed that SAPs made people poorer. The UNICEF-sponsored Adjustment with a Human Face documented increases in stunting, underweight and low birth weight in the wake of structural adjustment policies in 9 of 11 Latin American, African and Asian nations surveyed in the 1980s.
PRSPs set out governments’ strategies to reduce poverty and must include plans for how the money freed up by debt relief will be spent - e.g. on education and health care. The indebted countries also have to agree to implement economic reforms. The WDM states, “As the IMF and the World Bank hold the veto, PRSPs are unsurprisingly turning out to be very similar to the Structural Adjustment Programmes they replaced”.
AID & REVOLUTIONS
Much of the aid given to developing world countries has been 'tied aid' - this means that the countries who receive it have to buy goods and services from the countries who give it. In this way, most of the money is simply returned to those who gave it.
During the 1970s, the US only gave aid to Nicaragua in exchange for the production of beef, causing the loss of 1,000 km2 of rainforest per year. By 1979, Nicaragua was Latin America's biggest supplier of beef to the US.
Lobbying efforts by NGOs like Action Aid to “untie” aid mean that tied aid is now declining. In an unprecedented move, the UK government has now agreed to untie all its aid. However, an increased proportion of aid is now granted as “technical cooperation”, which is excluded from the definition of tied aid. According to a World Bank report, “some 100,000 foreign technical experts are currently employed in Africa, tending to displace local experts... it has probably weakened capacity in Africa.” Action Aid says that technical cooperation, “ensures a steady supply of lucrative contracts for consultants in donor countries”. “Aid” to developing countries is often more concerned with providing financial support for the West.
Food aid is also excluded from the definition of tied aid. Action Aid says that, “the exclusion of food aid may encourage the provision of donor foodstuffs when locally available produce could be purchased”. While food aid can be helpful in times of famine it does nothing to change the basic causes of hunger. As rich countries eat more meat, more land in poor countries will be turned over to produce animal feed.
The “Green Revolution” of the late 1960s and early 1970s was billed as the solution to world hunger. Productivity was increased through farm machinery, pesticides and fertilizers, irrigation and the replacement of traditional crops with high-yielding varieties. It failed to benefit those who needed it. This “revolution” focused on boosting the yields of a narrow base of cereals - corn, wheat and rice. The gains in cereal production often came at the expense of cultivation of more nutritious legumes, root crops and other grains. This resulted in reduced dietary diversity and contributed to widespread nutritional deficiencies as well as depletion of the soil and wildlife loss. The “revolution” also favored wealthier farmers because they were the ones who could afford to invest in the new technologies.
Many countries in Asia and Africa have traditionally based their diets around rice, beans, pulses and vegetables, either following a wholly vegetarian diet or only including low amounts of meat and fish. This is exactly the type of nutritious diet that is now being promoted by health officials in the West in an attempt to combat diseases like obesity, heart disease and cancer - low in animal fats and high in fiber, vegetable protein and essential vitamins. Yet developing countries, keen to copy Western lifestyles, increasingly perceive meat-eating as a sign of wealth and progress. This shift towards meat consumption is being described as “The Livestock Revolution”.
The International Food Policy Research Institute projects that meat demand in the developing world will double between 1995 and 2020. Per capita demand for meat is projected to increase 40 percent. Growth in livestock farming is primarily taking place in the intensive pig and poultry sectors.
Intensively farmed meat is billed as being a cheap source of protein while the global picture - the “grain drain” created by increased meat consumption - is ignored. Demand for cereals to feed to farmed animals is predicted to double in developing countries over the next generation. Demand for corn will increase the most, growing by 2.35 percent over the next 20 years. Nearly two thirds will go towards feeding animals.
Meat consumption tends to rise as people migrate from rural areas to cities. The meat industry is naturally only too pleased by these new commercial opportunities.
THE INSANITY OF FACTORY FARMING
Breeding animals is an incredibly inefficient way to try to feed the world's growing population. Yet after food rationing during the second world war, intensive animal farming was actively encouraged as a way of ensuring our future “food security”.
Most meat in the West is now produced in factory farms which, as the name implies, are production lines for animals. To meet the large demand for meat, billions of animals are kept in cramped, filthy conditions, often unable to move properly and not allowed fresh air or even natural light. Unable to feed outdoors naturally, they are fed grain, oil seeds, soy, fish meal and sometimes the remains of other animals. High quality land is used to grow grains and soy beans - land that could be used to grow crops for humans.
The grain fed to animals does not convert directly into meat to feed people. The vast majority is either excreted or used as “fuel” to keep the animal alive and functioning. For every 10 kilograms of soy protein fed to America’s cattle only 1 kilogram is converted to meat. Almost the entire population of India and China, nearly two billion people, could be fed on the protein consumed and largely wasted by the United States’ beef herd.
Because of the demand for animal feed, a Western meat-based diet uses four and a half times more land than is necessary for a vegan diet and two and a quarter times more than for a vegetarian diet.
This increase in factory farming is creating huge problems. In Bangladesh, for example, which is one of the world's poorest countries, battery hen systems have become widespread. The country has massive shortages of food, many unemployed people and very little money to spare. Factory farming needs money for equipment, creates hardly any jobs and uses up much valuable plant food that could be fed to people.
Factory farming does not meet the needs of these people but it does benefit people in Western countries where much of the equipment needed, such as tractors and building materials, is made. When developing countries buy them they then become dependent on the suppliers for spare parts and repairs.
Poultry World magazine highlighted “the great scope for expansion” in Africa. It emphasized how African countries are largely dependent on Western countries for breeding stock, feed and pharmaceuticals. Poultry farming has grown so fast in India that they are producing more meat than their own people can afford to buy. Despite widespread hunger, they are exporting chicken to wealthy countries such as the Gulf States.
China has seen an enormous rise in pork production over the past decade and hence an enormous increase in its need for animal feed. The country has transformed from being an exporter of 8 million tons of grain in 1993 to becoming a net importer of 16 million tons by 1995.
If developing countries look to consuming the same quantity of meat per head as the average American, food shortages will become desperate. Yet rather than switch to vegetarianism, livestock scientists advocate boosting the “feed efficiency” of animals. A modern intensively raised chicken will put on 3 kilograms from the same amount of feed that in 1957 only yielded 2 kilograms. US scientists have discovered that pigs can be made to grow 40 percent faster on 25 percent less feed if they are injected with DNA encoding a modified, long lasting releasing factor for growth hormones. In livestock science, animals are perceived as unfeeling, unthinking, protein-making machines that can be tweaked and manipulated for our own benefit.
Exporting factory farming means exporting the overuse of antibiotics and the increased risks of food poisoning and diseases such as cancer and heart disease which are associated with increased meat-eating. It also means exporting the environmental damage caused by intensive farming systems, including the overuse of water and land degradation to provide the massive amount of crops these poor creatures are fed. Is this really what the developing world needs in order to “develop”?
The predicted shift towards increased meat consumption is still in its infancy. Even in China, which is at the forefront of the “Livestock Revolution” and where per capita meat consumption doubled between 1983 and 1993, people eat on average just a quarter as much meat as the average American. If we act now, we could still stop this cycle of insanity and move towards agricultural systems which would genuinely feed the world.
MALNUTRITION & OBESITY
For the first time in history, we have reached a situation where the number of overweight people rivals the number who are underweight, both estimated at 1.1 billion.
As countries grow wealthier, meat consumption tends to rise. Hunger problems are reduced but hospitals begin to see more cases involving illnesses such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer - all of which are linked to diets high in animal produce. China is at the forefront of the “livestock revolution”. The share of adults who are overweight jumped from 9 percent to 15 percent between 1989 and 1992.
The number of diabetics worldwide whose condition results from overeating is projected to double between 1998 and 2025, with more than three quarters of this growth occurring in the developing world. Some countries will be battling hunger and obesity at the same time.
In a nutshell: countries whose people are starving are using their land to grow grain for export to feed the West’s farmed animals. Nutritionally valuable food is being fed to animals to produce meat, which Western countries are literally gorging themselves to death on. Now, we are exporting factory farming to the developing world. Meat consumption is rising and so are the associated health problems.
SEND A COW
Charities have been set up with the specific aim of promoting livestock farming in the developing world - claiming they are working to alleviate poverty. While encouraging animal farming may temporarily alleviate the poverty of individual families, it can only contribute towards poverty in the long run. Promoting meat production can never be a solution to world hunger because it means promoting a diet which drains valuable grain stocks and devastates the environment.
The amount of land used to grow animal feed in Western countries is not enough to meet their own needs and more is imported from developing countries. Land in some developing countries, like India, is also used to grow grain for animals who are reared and killed for export.
Currently farmed animals eat one-third of the world’s cereal production. In the industrialized world, two-thirds of the agricultural land produces cereals for animal feed.
In the United States, farmed animals, mostly cattle, consume almost twice as much grain as is eaten by the entire US population. 70 percent of all the wheat, corn and other grain produced goes to feeding animals. Over 100 million acres of US agricultural land is used to grow grain for animals and still more is imported.
In Central and South America, ever-increasing amounts of land are being used to grow soy beans and grain for export - to be used as animal feed. In Brazil, 23 percent of the cultivated land is currently being used to produce soy beans, of which nearly half are for export. 25 years ago, livestock consumed less than 6 percent of Mexico’s grain. Today, at least one third of the grain produced in the country is being fed to animals. At the same time, millions of people living in the country are chronically undernourished.
Instead of promoting the growing of plant foods for human consumption, governments offer subsidy payments and financial incentives to livestock farmers, thereby actively encouraging meat production.
Fish farming, or aquaculture, is the fastest growing sector of the world economy and has been growing at 11 percent a year over the past decade. In 1990, 13 million tons of fish were produced but by 2002, this had risen to 39.8 million tons. 85 percent of fish farming is in developing countries. China accounted for 27.7 million tons of the 39.8 million tons of world aquacultural output in 2002, and India 2 million tons. Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand are also major players in the industry.
Breeding fish in captivity is billed as the way to protect ever-diminishing wild fish stocks. But paradoxically, carnivorous farmed fish are actually fed wild fish - further depleting the oceans. It takes 5 tons of fish caught from the sea to produce one ton of factory farmed salmon. Wild-caught fish are also fed to halibut, cod and trout.
Fishmeal is made from fish or fish parts for which there is said to be little or no human demand. But the huge need for wild-caught fish on fish farms still places much additional stress on our fragile, overfished oceans.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 69 percent of the world’s commercial marine fish stocks are “fully exploited, overfished, depleted, or slowly recovering”.
Non-carnivorous farmed fish like carp and catfish are fed grain rather than wild-caught fish. Fish are said to convert grain more “efficiently” than cattle - they add a kilogram of weight with less than two kilograms of grain. But the global fixation with obtaining protein from animals means that the most efficient option of all - consuming the grain directly - is ignored.
GLOBAL WATER SHORTAGE
The massive quantities of grain required to sustain a meat-based diet are not the only problem. The meat production process uses up vast quantities of water in a world where water is in short supply. It takes 1,000 liters to produce 1kg of wheat and 100,000 liters to produce 1kg of beef. About three quarters of the water we use goes to growing food but vegetarians need less than a third as much water to sustain their diet as meat-eaters.
Living in the West, it’s easy to imagine that our water supplies are unlimited, but globally our fresh water supplies are being used up so fast that almost half a billion people already depend on nonrenewable sources. 7 percent of the world’s population has not enough water and by 2050, this will be 70 percent. The situation is so dire that battles over water supplies are predicted to become a major source of conflict.
Worldwatch Institute chairman Lester Brown states, “In consumption terms, 480 million of the world’s 6 billion people are being fed with food produced with the unsustainable use of water. We are already using up the water which belongs to our children”. The International Water Management Institute predicts that by 2025 about 2.7 billion people - a third of the world’s population - will live in regions faced by regular and severe water scarcity. Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will be hit the hardest.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario more sickening than a rich elite gorging itself on meat while the poorest third of the world’s population literally dehydrate. A shift away from meat consumption must become a global priority if we are to have a hope of meeting the basic needs of the world’s 6 billion inhabitants.
GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROPS
Multinational companies promise us that there is a new solution to global poverty: genetically modified crops. Thanks to their life-saving research, we will soon be able to grow enough food to feed the world, they promise us. So what’s the real reason for their sudden altruism?
Don’t forget that there is already enough food to feed the world - on a vegetarian diet. What there is not enough of is animal feed - cereals to drive the predicted increase in meat consumption. The amount of productive land is diminishing through desertification and soil degradation, due largely - ironically - to intensive livestock agriculture. But the potential market for animal feed is huge.
The pharmaceutical giants who are pushing GMOs bank some $161 billion dollars between them every year. They walk hand in hand with agribusinesses and the livestock industry - often they are one and the same company. Intensive livestock farming accounts for over 40 percent of their income and these companies are responsible for producing the vast quantities of fodder consumed by farmed animals world-wide - as well as the cocktail of drugs, growth enhancers and pesticides which prop up intensive farming systems.
The driving need, therefore, is to make maximum use of existing land by destroying all weeds and wild plants which compete for nutrients, and to increase crop yields - hence genetic modification. Companies promoting GMOs are more interested in boosting the production of animal feed, and hence meat, than in feeding the world.
THE SOLUTION IS IN OUR HANDS
The fast growth of the world's population is a serious problem because it means there are more mouths to feed, resulting in more pressure on water, land, wildlife and so on. By 2050, the 49 least-developed countries will nearly triple in size, from 668 million to 1.86 billion people. By 2050, today’s developing countries will account for over 85 percent of the world population.
However, although this makes the hunger problem worse, it does not actually cause it. It is the growth of incomes and demand for 'luxury' items in rich countries that have triggered the hunger crisis. The world is a much wealthier place today than it was 40 years ago and as wages have risen they have encouraged large-scale meat eating in richer countries, heightening the competition for cereals between animals and humans.
A huge “consumption gap” exists between industrialized and developing countries. The world’s richest countries, with 20 percent of global population, account for 86 percent of total private consumption, whereas the poorest 20 percent of the world’s people account for just 1.3 percent.
A child born today in an industrialized country will add more to consumption and pollution over his or her lifetime than 30 to 50 children born in developing countries.
The decline in world fish stocks, the erosion of agricultural land and the limits of technology to boost grain yields mean we are fast approaching the limit of resources and the earth's carrying capacity. We need to rethink the way limited supplies of plant food are distributed and start feeding the world.
Eating meat is not the only reason for world hunger but it is a major cause. We must drastically change our eating habits if we are to feed the world adequately. People are going hungry while ever increasing numbers of animals are fed huge amounts of food in a hopelessly inefficient system.
By not using animals as meat producing machines, this food could be freed to help those that need it most. Veganism, by using up far less of the world’s resources of food, land water and energy, is a positive step that we can all easily take to help feed people in poorer countries.