Food Revolution: Reversing the Spread of Hunger, Part I

by John Robbins, an author widely recognized as one of the world's leading experts on the intimate link between diet and environmental and personal health. Amongst others, John is the author of the revolutionary book 'Diet for a New America', a book nominated for a pulitzer prize, as well as the updated 'Food Revolution' and 'Healthy at 100'.

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At the first world food conference, held in Rome in 1974, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger promised that by 1984, no man, woman, or child on Earth would go to bed hungry.(1) Many things have changed since then. At that time, there were barely 4 billion people on the planet. Today there are more than 6 billion. During the 1970s, the world grain harvest per capita was growing. However, it peaked in 1984, the very year by which Kissinger hoped world hunger would end, and has been falling ever since.(2) And there is every indication this decline will accelerate in coming years as aquifers are depleted and water for irrigation becomes increasingly scarce.

At the same time, the state of the world’s farmland has degraded. In 2000, using satellite photos, maps, and other data, the International Food Policy Research Institute completed the most comprehensive study ever made of agricultural land around the world. The findings were unmistakable. Due to problems like erosion and nutrient depletion, nearly 40 percent of the world’s agricultural land had become seriously degraded, raising doubts about its ability to produce food in the future. Ismail Seragldin, World Bank vice president and chairman of a consortium of international agricultural research centers, commented, “The results raise all kinds of red flags about the world’s ability to feed itself in the future.”(3) Today, more than a billion people on this planet do not have enough to eat. Nearly one-third of the children in the developing world are chronically hungry, making them vulnerable to infectious disease and diarrhea, which often lead to permanent mental and physical impairment or death.(4) Meanwhile, McDonald’s is opening five new restaurants a day — four of them outside the United States. Is McDonald’s in Ethiopia the answer to world hunger? Is That So?

“[It’s a] myth [that] beef cattle production uses grain that could be used to feed the world’s hungry.” — National Cattlemen’s Association (5) “In a world where an estimated one in every six people goes hungry every day, the politics of meat consumption are increasingly heated, since meat production 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 grains to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat eaters and the world’s poor.”— Worldwatch Institute (6)

In traditional livestock production systems, domestic animals turned grass and other things people could not eat into things people could. And still, in many parts of the world (including most of Africa), people depend on animals to convert vegetation that does not compete with human food crops into edible protein. To raise meat output, however, livestock producers in the industrialized world have adopted intensive rearing techniques that rely heavily on grains and legumes to feed their animals. Virtually all of the pigs and poultry in industrial countries now reside in gigantic indoor facilities where their diets include grain and soybean meal. Most cattle spend their last months in feedlots where they gorge on grain and soybeans. Overall, nearly 40 percent of the world’s grain is fed to livestock. And the nations that eat the most meat dedicate the largest share of their grain to fattening livestock. In the United States, livestock now eat twice as much grain as is consumed by the country’s entire human population. The more grain that is fed to livestock, the less is left to feed people. Dr. M. E. Ensminger, former Chairman of the Department of Animal Science at Washington State University, is one of the leading figures in the U.S. beef industry. In Animal Science, he writes,

“There can be no question that more hunger can be alleviated with a given quantity of grain by completely eliminating animals. . . . It’s not efficient to feed grain to animals and then to consume the livestock products.” (7)

Who Eats? And Who Doesn’t? In nation after nation today, the world’s wealthy are following in the meat-eating footsteps of the United States. Does this trend have consequences for the food security of the world’s poor? As countries increase their consumption of animal products, ever more of their grain goes to animals and ever less to people, and they must import ever-increasing amounts of grain. In a world where per-capita grain production stopped rising in 1984, and has been falling ever since, how can this be sustained? In the most populous nation in the world, China, the share of grain fed to livestock increased between 1978 and 1997 from 8 percent to 26 percent.(8) In the early 1990s, China was a net exporter of grain, but today, thanks to an increasing appetite for meat, China is the world’s second largest grain importer, trailing only Japan. (9)

“As Chinese eat more grain-fed meat, the country’s need for grain will continue to grow. This . . . could quickly make China the world’s leading grain importer, overtaking even Japan . . . potentially disrupting world grain markets . . . meaning rising food prices for the entire world. . . . China cannot import the grain it needs without driving world grain prices up, leaving the 1.3 billion people in the world who subsist on $1 a day at risk.” -- Worldwatch Institute (10)

If food prices rise throughout the world, the wealthy will still eat, but the poor will increasingly be left with nowhere to turn. In recent years, grain prices have been kept reasonably stable only through massive overpumping of aquifers worldwide for irrigation. But as a result, water tables are now falling rapidly throughout the world’s agriculturally productive areas — including China, India, and the United States, which together produce half the world’s food. The International Water Management Institute, the world’s premier water research group, estimates that India’s grain harvest may before long be reduced by one-fourth as a result of aquifer depletion. (11) Thirty years ago, the U.S.S.R. was self-sufficient in grain; but in the 1990s, the former Soviet Union became the world’s third largest grain importer. Russian livestock now eat three times as much grain as Russian people.(12) Hardly existent in Russia 20 years ago, hunger and human starvation are now widespread and severe. Throughout the world, increases in grain-fed livestock have forced countries to import more feed. Twenty years ago, only 1 percent of Thailand’s grain was fed to animals. Today the figure has risen to 30 percent.(13) At the same time, a growing number of people in Thailand and throughout Asia live on the perilous edge of food deprivation. Millions are dying from lack of adequate food. Many watch their children starve. Vandana Shiva is the director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy, and one of the world’s foremost experts on global food issues. She says we are seeing “the McDonaldization of the world. . . . As more grain is traded globally, more people go hungry in the Third World.” (14) Middle Eastern countries similarly maintain high levels of meat consumption only by depending heavily on imported grain. Twenty years ago, Egypt was self-sufficient in grain. Then, livestock ate only 10 percent of the nation’s grain. Today, livestock consume 36 percent of Egypt’s grain, and the country must import 8 million tons every year. (15) Jordan now imports 91 percent of its grain, Israel 87 percent, Libya 85 percent, and Saudi Arabia 50 percent. (16) As livestock industries pour grain into producing animal products for the wealthy, almost all Third World nations must now import grain. That more and more countries are looking to the world market for food can only translate into food scarcity for the world’s poor. Remarkably, the world’s nations depend massively on one nation for grain. The United States is responsible for half of the world’s grain exports, shipping grain to more than 100 countries. Yet the U.S. grain harvest is notoriously sensitive to climate conditions, including droughts. In a time of global warming and climate destabilization, the possibility of a weather-induced drop in U.S. grain harvest is all too real.(17) And with the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, experts are predicting that before long the United States will lose much, if not all, of its grain surplus.(18) With the world’s agricultural economy devouring rapidly increasing quantities of grain for livestock production, the consequences to the world’s less fortunate people could be tragic.

“Higher meat consumption among the affluent frequently creates problems for the poor, as the share of farmland devoted to feed cultivation expands, reducing production of food staples. In the economic competition for grain fields, the upper classes usually win.” -- Worldwatch Institute (19)

Since 1960, the number of landless in Central America has multiplied fourfold. International lending agencies such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank have responded with billions of dollars in loans. But these loans have not challenged the tightly concentrated distribution of economic power, nor the use of resources to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Often, the money has been lent to support livestock operations. The hope has been that the resulting heightened beef production would be of use to the impoverished masses of these poor countries. But over half of Latin America’s beef production is exported to the world’s wealthier countries, and what remains is too expensive for any but the wealthy to purchase.(20) From 1960 to 1980, beef exports from El Salvador increased more than sixfold.(21) During that same time, increasing numbers of small farmers lost their livelihood and were pushed off their land. Today, 72 percent of all Salvadoran infants are underfed.(22) Where does the income from the sale of beef go? Not to the poor, but to the very few who own the land. A handful of wealthy families own more than half the agricultural land in Costa Rica, grazing 2 million cattle.(23) In Guatemala, as is typical for Latin American countries, 3 percent of the population owns 70 percent of the agricultural land. Most of Mexico’s wealth is in the hands of about 30 families, while half of the people live on less than $1 a day.(24) Only 35 years ago, sorghum was almost unknown in Mexico. But now it literally covers twice the acreage of wheat. What caused sorghum’s incredible takeover of Mexican agricultural land? Sorghum is fed to livestock. Twenty-five years ago, livestock consumed only 6 percent of Mexico’s grain. Today, the figure is over 50 percent.(25) In Guatemala, much of the land and other resources for food production are given over to meat, while 75 percent of the children under five years of age are undernourished. The meat produced goes to those who can afford it. Guatemala is a nation where babies have only a 50–50 chance of reaching the age of four because of widespread malnutrition. Meanwhile, every year Guatemala exports 40 million pounds of meat to the United States.(26) We see the same trend throughout the Third World. Copying, and providing for, the United States’ meat-oriented diet, ever-larger percentages of the resources of poor nations go into meat production. In country after country the demand for meat among the rich is squeezing out staple production for the poor.(27) In Costa Rica, beef production quadrupled between 1960 and 1980. Today, even with much of its original tropical rainforest land sacrificed to beef production, the average family in Costa Rica eats less meat than the average American house cat. Most Costa Rican beef is exported to the United States. As more and more Costa Rican land is being turned over to meat production, the population has less and less to eat. With the help of the World Bank and other international lending institutions, Brazil has mounted an enormous effort to increase agricultural production, but this has been primarily meat-oriented and for export. Twenty-five years ago, there were virtually no soybeans planted in Brazil. Today, this crop is the nation’s number one export, with almost all of it going to feed Japanese and European livestock. Twenty-five years ago, one-third of the Brazilian population suffered from malnutrition. Today, the number has risen to two-thirds. Now, half of the basic grains produced in Brazil are used for livestock feed. The country has the largest commercial cattle herd in the world, while the majority of the rural poor suffer from malnutrition.(28) Is That So?

“To get more grain to the poor and hungry, taxpayers or organizations must buy it and distribute it.” — National Cattlemen’s Association (29) “Two thirds of the agriculturally productive land in Central America is devoted to livestock production, yet the poor majority cannot afford the meat, which is eaten by the well-to-do or exported.” -- Frances Moore Lappé, author, Diet for a Small Planet; co-founder, Institute for Food and Development Policy

Throughout the Third World, the production of meat is monopolizing the best local land, undermining the local food supply, and undercutting the efforts of the people to become food self-reliant. There are today millions of human beings in less-developed countries who are going hungry while their land, labor, and resources are being used to feed livestock so wealthy people can eat meat. It’s painful that as a species we can put a man on the moon, but haven’t come close to ending the scourge of hunger. In a world where a child dies of hunger-caused disease every two seconds, only our own ignorance allows us to continue to view meat as a status symbol. Editor's Note: Continue to Reversing the Spread of Hunger,  Part II References: 1. Brown, Lester, “Facing Reality at the World Food Summit,” Worldwatch Press Release, November 1, 1996. 2. Ibid. 3. “Forty Percent of World’s Farmland Degraded,” World Wire, May 22, 2000; and “Soil Loss Threatens Food Prospects,” BBC News Online, May 22, 2000. 4. Gardner, Gary, and Halweil, Brian, “Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition,” Worldwatch Paper 150, Worldwatch Institute, 2000. 5. “12 Myths and Facts about Beef Production: A Dozen of the Most Popular Misconceptions about America’s Most Popular Meat,” National Cattlemen’s Association, American Angus Association, West Salem, OH, publication date unknown; distributed by the National Cattlemen’s Association in 1993. 6. Halweil, Brian, “United States Leads World Meat Stampede,” Worldwatch Issues Paper, July 2, 1998. 7. Ensminger, M. E., Animal Science, 9th ed. (Danville, IL: Interstate Publishers, 1991), p. 20. 8. Halweil, “United States Leads World Meat Stampede.” 9. Brown, “Facing Reality.” 10. Brown, L., “China’s Water Shortage Could Shake World Grain Markets,” Worldwatch Press Release, April 22, 1998; “Falling Water Tables in China May Soon Raise Food Prices Everywhere,” Worldwatch, May 2, 2000. 11. Brown, L., and Halweil, B., “Populations Outrunning Water Supply as World Hits 6 Billion,” Worldwatch News Release, September 23, 1999. 12. Durning, Alan, and Brough, Holly, “Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment,” Worldwatch Paper 103, July 1991, p. 29. 13. Halweil, “United States Leads World Meat Stampede.” 14. Shiva, Vandana, Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000), p. 13. 15. Durning and Brough, “Taking Stock,” p. 31. 16. “Emerging Water Shortages,” Worldwatch News Release, July 17, 1999. 17. Brown, L., “Food Security Deteriorating in the Nineties,” Worldwatch Press Briefing, March 6, 1997. 18. Ayres, Ed, God’s Last Offer (New York/London: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999), p. 102. 19. Durning and Brough, “Taking Stock,” p. 31. 20. DeWalt, B., “The Cattle Are Eating the Forest,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist 39:1 (January 1983):22; and Shane, D., Hoofprints on the Forest: Cattle Ranching and the Destruction of Latin America’s Tropical Forests (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1986), p. 78. 21. DeWalt, B., “The Cattle Are Eating the Forest.” 22. Policy Alternatives for the Caribbean and Central America, Changing Course: Blueprint for Peace in Central America and the Caribbean (Washington, DC: Institute for Policy Studies, 1984). 23. Caulfield, Catherine, “A Reporter at Large: The Rain Forests,” New Yorker, January 14, 1985. See also Myers, Norman, The Primary Source (New York: W. W. Norton, 1983), p. 133. 24. Gray, Mike, Drug Crazy (New York: Random House, 1998), p. 134. 25. DeWalt, B., “Mexico’s Second Green Revolution,” Mexican Studies1:1 (Winter 1985):30; Barkin, D., and DeWalt, B., “Sorghum, the Internationalization of Capital, and the Mexican Food Crisis,” Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association Meeting, Denver, CO, November 16, 1984, p. 16; see also Halweil, “United States Leads World Meat Stampede.” 26. Myers, Primary Source, p. 133. 27. Durning and Brough, “Taking Stock,” p. 32. 28. Size of Brazil’s commercial cattle herd from “Virus-Free Brazil Beef Headed for US in 2000,” Meat Industry Insights, November 3, 1999. 29. “Myths and Facts about Beef Production.”

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elocutionist (anonymous)

This is one heck of a beef, but give me a good steak any day. It's amazing how you can ignore the fact that, in the 1960s, the Japanese came to American cattlemen to learn the cattle business because of the hormone specific to beef cattle that allowed Americans to grow strong and tall. Forty years later, the average Japanese is taller and stronger after a long love affair with beef consumption. This is a real smear piece on the American way of life and the U.S. cattle industry. You should be ashamed. Go eat some hay.

Written in September 2011

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  • Posted on Nov. 22, 2007. Listed in:

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