Whenever someone in the animal rights community suggests the concept of complete animal liberation, and therefore an end to the exploitation of animals, a common criticism and counter-argument to this goal is: “Humans can’t give up eating animals (or animal products), because then everyone would starve!” Not only is the idea of giving up their favorite edibles anxiety-inducing and even threatening to resolute omnivores, but it seems perfectly rational to them that, given the plight of humans around the globe who are suffering from poverty and hunger, removing animals from the world’s food supply would only exacerbate the situation. However, nothing could be further from the truth. It is actually the production of animal-based foods that is one of the leading causes of world hunger.
It is estimated that a staggering 925 million humans around the world are suffering from the effects of hunger (mostly in the poor and underdeveloped countries of Asia and Africa), and out of that original number, 870 million are affected with malnutrition. Those original 925 million actually outnumber the combined populace living in the United States, Canada, and the European Union. Think about that for a moment. That means that there are enough hungry people on this planet to fill up almost two entire continents. Furthermore, it must be made clear that this is not just benign hunger; the type felt by a person in the rich, developed world when they’ve missed their lunch break. Every year, starvation claims the lives of over 2.5 million children under the age of five.
However, it has been proven that there is enough food on earth to feed every last man, woman, and child. Yet, if this is the case, why do people around the world continue to starve? The answer to that question lies in large part with the production of animal-based foods, such as meat, dairy, and eggs. Even though there are enough plant-based foods grown to feed the entire human population, the majority of crops (including those grown in countries where people are starving) are fed to livestock for affluent nations, and since the amount of animal-based food produced by the farming industry is much less than the amount of plant food put into it, there is a “diminished return on the investment,” the food supply dwindles, and humans end up going hungry.
Imagine, if you would, all the food (mostly grains) that a cow would eat in the course of 18 to 24 months (which is the average age of most cows when they are slaughtered for their meat). Now imagine if you were somehow able the pile all of that food up in front of you. This massive mountain of food is what has sustained this cow for all of these months; giving him energy, allowing cells to regenerate, bones and muscles to grow, his heart to beat and his lungs to breathe. Now imagine that a slaughterhouse worker came and killed that cow, carving his body up into cuts of meat and placing these cuts of meat into a separate pile. Which of these two piles do you think would feed more people: the pile of meat that used to be his body, or the pile of food that went into creating and nourishing it? This is the stark equation that makes the animal farming industry so illogical and unsustainable.
In 2011, 883 million tons of corn, and 260 million tons of soybeans were grown globally. However, on average, 40-50% of that corn, and 80% of those soybeans are fed to farmed animals, rather than being eaten directly by humans. In 2013, scientists from the Institute on the Environment and the University of Minnesota published a study examining agricultural resources (including meat, dairy, and egg production) and the dilemma of world hunger. The scientists reached the conclusion that if all food crops were fed directly to humans instead of animals, around 70% more food would be added to the world’s supply, which would be enough to feed 4 billion additional people. That sudden surplus alone would be enough food to feed over half the humans on earth, let alone the 925 million who face hunger every day.
Cows (and the other animals we eat) are poor converters when it comes to turning food into energy and muscle, which is why it takes anywhere from 13 to-20 pounds of grain fed to a cow to produce just 1 pound of muscle mass, i.e. beef. This means that 13-20 times as many people could be fed if those grains were simply eaten by humans. Likewise, it takes around seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of pork, and 4.5 pounds of grain to produce one pound of chicken. In a 2009 study, the Worldwatch Institute stated that “…meat consumption is an inefficient use of grain—the grain is used more efficiently when consumed directly by humans. Continued growth in meat output is dependent on feeding grain to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat-eaters and the world’s poor.”
The “diminished return on investment” scenario is further complicated when you consider the fact that cows (exploited for meat, dairy, and leather) as well as other grazing animals, were never biologically designed to eat the massive amounts of grain they are fed by the farming industry. They are ruminants, and evolved to eat grass. However, because the demand for animal products is so high in today’s society, and because farmers want to produce the most product as quickly as possible, animals are fed massive amounts of grain, such as corn. In the age of factory farming, it takes only 18-24 months for a cow to grow to the desired weight and be killed. This is thanks to a steady diet of grains (which humans could be eating) and growth hormones.
However, this is not to say that grass-fed beef is a viable alternative. Livestock grazing threatens native and endangered species through habitat destruction and displacement, and causes soil erosion, which in turn can transform fertile farmland into deserts (a process known as desertification). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that around 70% of the Amazon rainforest has been cut and burned to be used as grazing land for cattle. Ultimately, whether used for grazing or growing feed crops, the use of land and other natural resources for meat, dairy, and egg production is horribly inefficient. Sadly, this does not stop farmers in both developed and developing nations (many of which suffer from widespread hunger and starvation) from using their resources to satisfy the the world’s growing appetite for animal products.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates poses the question, “If we pursue our habit of eating animals, and if our neighbor follows a similar path, will we not have need to go to war against our neighbor to secure greater pasturage, because ours will not be enough to sustain us, and our neighbor will have a similar need to wage war on us for the same reason?” It seems this question that was asked so many centuries ago is becoming more and more of a reality in the modern world, as many political and economic experts are predicting that future wars will be fought over food, water, land, and other valuable natural resources critical to human survival. Moreover, with the human population of the world at 7 billion and growing, these natural resources are destined to become only more precious. It has come time to do something to solve the global crisis that is world hunger, and the most rational solution should be extremely clear. In order to ensure that every person on the planet has enough food to eat, and ultimately protect our own survival, humans must look deep within themselves and choose the path that is the most compassionate, healthy, and sustainable. That path is veganism.
Food and Agriculture Organization
Humane Society International
International Vegetarian Union
Jess McNally, Stanford Magazine
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
United Nations World Food Programme
United States Environmental Protection Agency