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Being Vegetarian for the World's Hungry

Greenies2_0711How bad is the global hunger crisis?

Starvation hurts. 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 hungry. In the next year, more than 10 million people will actually starve to death. Unfortunately, it's the children who are the most vulnerable.

Why is global hunger increasing?

There are two reasons for the worsening levels of hunger. One is that the world's population continues to increase. It's now at almost 7 billion, and predicted to be over 9 billion by 2050.

Here's the part most people don't know about. An even bigger factor in world hunger, which is not so often discussed, is that more and more developing countries-China in particular-are greatly increasing the amount of meat they consume. As they raise more meat, they need more grain to feed the animals, and so they start to import grain, whereas previously they were self-sufficient.

There's a world of waste in the current system of taking our crops and feeding them to farm animals. Globally, 90 percent of the soybean harvest and 40 percent of the grain is now used for animal feed. And, as you'll see in the next section, most of the nutrition is wasted by the animals and never appears in the form of meat. This enormous waste is driving hunger and malnutrition in the hungry regions of the world.
How can following a vegetarian diet help the hungry people of the world?

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 percent of the protein and 4 percent of the calories it consumes. The rest is used by the cow to enable it to live and breathe throughout its lifetime. 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 that could feed themselves, but farmers, policy makers, and governments choose to feed crops to farm animals instead of people. 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.

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 or becoming vegetarians.

Why can't we just grow more food?

Not all acres are created equal, and good new farmland is getting harder and harder to find. The world is running out of quality farmland. Many people think that there is plenty of farmland around the world just waiting to be cultivated. This is not the case. With the notable exception of the United States, almost all of the world's prime farmland is already being used. The remaining farmland is of very poor quality, and it doesn't produce food efficiently. Thomas Homer-Dixon, a professor in the faculty of environment at the University of Waterloo, explains, "Nearly all the best farmland is already being used. Most of what's left is either less fertile, not sufficiently rain-fed or easily irrigated, infested with pests, or harder to clear, plant, and plow."

The oceans are huge, so why don't we feed people more fish?

Nice idea, but it won't work. The world's fisheries are already producing more fish than is sustainable. Eleven of the world's fifteen most important fishing grounds are in decline, and 60 percent of the major fish species are overexploited. If this continues, by the year 2049 there will be no edible species of fish left.

Aren't war and other catastrophes the real cause of food shortages?

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 and can decrease the food supply. But it's the daily waste of food by feeding it to farm animals that's driving the massive global hunger and malnutrition problem. Sure, food is wasted in other ways and sure, there's poverty. But food has always been wasted, and there's always been poverty, yet global hunger is getting worse. What has changed is that meat consumption is skyrocketing in the developing world, which is using up crops that could be used for human consumption.

How can Americans make a difference?

It may seem that one person can't make much difference, but one person eats three meals a day, 365 days of the year, which adds up to more than a thousand meals. The grain saved by forgoing a thousand meat-based meals could be used to produce 12,000 well-balanced vegetarian meals, so you can see how it adds up pretty quickly. In fact, says David Pimentel, professor of ecology at 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." Adopting a vegetarian diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and legumes is not only good for you, it is also an act of charity for those who need it the most.

It's a sin to waste food. Aid agencies should designate all food sent to regions of hunger for human consumption only. These meat-free zones, after some readjustment, would soon enable the people there to live in hunger-free zones. Supporting the aid agencies that already have adopted such policies will make a big difference. Examples of such organizations are Vegfam, International Fund for Africa, and Food For Life Global.

Amanda Strombom and Stewart Rose are the founders of Vegetarians of Washington, a non-profit organization promoting a vegetarian diet. See Say No Meat for the rest of the article. Vegetarians of Washington can be reached at 206-706-2635.

Find out more about related services in the Washington area:

Vegetarian & Vegan Food, Bakeries & Baked Goods, Produce - Natural/Organic, Farmers Markets