Food Revolution: Reversing the Spread of Hunger, Part II

Editor's Note: This follows on from Part I, both of which are chapters in our Food Revolution Series. If you've been following along, you'll know there's a lot more to the world of animal production than just what you see at the deli counter.... Feeding Cows, Not People 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'. Dr. Walden Bello is Executive Director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, and a leading expert on global food realities. He notes,

“Every time you eat a hamburger you are having a relationship with thousands of people you never met. Not just people at the supermarket or fast food restaurant but possibly World Bank officials in Washington, D.C., and peasants from Central and South America. And many of these people are hungry. The fact is that there is enough food in the world for everyone. But tragically, much of the world’s food and land resources are tied up in producing beef and other livestock—food for the well-off—while millions of children and adults suffer from malnutrition and starvation. . . . In Central America, staple crop production has been replaced by cattle ranching, which now occupies two-thirds of the arable land. The World Bank encouraged this switch-over with an eye toward expanding U.S. fast-food and frozen-dinner markets. The resulting expansion of cattle ranching has deprived peasants of access to the land they depend on for growing food. And because of ranching’s limited ability to create jobs (cattle ranching creates 13 times fewer jobs per acre than coffee production), rural hunger has soared. . . . What does all this have to do with our hamburgers? The American fast-food diet and the meat-eating habits of the wealthy around the world support a world food system that diverts food resources from the hungry.”

What We Know

  • Number of underfed and malnourished people in the world: 1.2 billion (30)
  • Number of overfed and malnourished people in the world: 1.2 billion (31)

Experiences shared by both the hungry and the overweight: High levels of sickness and disability, shortened life expectancies, lower levels of productivity (32)

  • Children in Bangladesh who are so underfed and underweight that their health is diminished: 56 percent (33)
  • Adults in United States who are so overfed and overweight that their health is diminished: 55 percent (34)

In the past, as the number of people on Earth grew, it was always possible to clear more land and grow more grain. But sadly, this is no longer the case. After 10,000 years of continuous expansion, the amount of land planted worldwide in grains—the primary crop on every continent—reached a peak in 1981. It has declined by 5 percent since then. Ed Ayres is the editorial director of the Worldwatch Institute. In 1999, he described how the rapid expansion of cities all over the world has contributed to a decline in the world’s agricultural acreage:

“The locations of most centers of population were originally chosen because the land was good for farming, so as cities have exploded in size they have spread over fertile land at a disproportionately rapid rate. The rivers that provided good soil and water also provided means of transport that became important to trade, so the tendency of people to settle near water—and therefore on good farmland—was reinforced. In the past quarter century, millions of acres of the world’s richest farmland have been covered with housing developments, industrial parks, and pavement.” (35)

In 2000, the United Nations Commission on Nutrition Challenges of the 21st Century said that unless we make major changes, 1 billion children will be permanently handicapped over the next 20 years due to inadequate caloric intake. (36) The first step to averting this tragedy, according to the commission, is to encourage human consumption of traditional grains, fruits, and vegetables.

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What We Know

  • Cattle alive today on Earth: More than 1 billion
  • Weight of world’s cattle compared to weight of world’s people: Nearly double
  • Area of Earth’s total land mass used as pasture for cattle and other livestock: One-half (37)
  • Grassland needed to support one cow under optimal conditions: 2.5 acres (38)
  • Grassland needed to support cow under far more common marginal conditions: 50 acres (39)

In the United States, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has not taken kindly to charges that U.S. beef production contributes to human hunger, and has mounted a campaign to convince the public, and public officials, of its point of view.

“Most of the grain fed to cattle,” say the cattlemen, “is feed grain, not food grain.” (40)

This is true, but there is absolutely no reason why the land, water, energy, and labor that are currently used to grow feed grains could not easily be used to grow food grains. The cattlemen also tell us, “If grain were not fed to livestock, more grain would not necessarily be available to feed the hungry.” (41) In reality, however, if grain were not fed to livestock, it—and/or the resources needed for its production—would be available for a variety of uses, including feeding the hungry. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association points to grazing as a wise use of the land: “Were it not for grazing animals like cattle, hundreds of millions of acres of U.S. grazing land would have no productive value. No more than 15 percent of the grazing land could be used to produce crops.” (42) Actually, however, the food value to humans of growing grain and other crops for human consumption on the 15 percent of land currently used for grazing that would be suitable for such crops would be comparable to the food value now produced by grazing cattle on the entire amount. Further, if the remaining 85 percent wasn’t grazed, it would return to wilderness, where it would provide habitat for countless species, many of them currently endangered as a direct result of cattle grazing. Trees would return to this land, reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, beautifying the environment, providing oxygen, and helping stabilize our precarious climate. What We Know

  • U.S. corn eaten by people: 2 percent (43)
  • U.S. corn eaten by livestock: 77 percent (44)
  • U.S. farmland producing vegetables: 4 million acres (45)
  • U.S. farmland producing hay for livestock: 56 million acres (46)
  • U.S. grain and cereals fed to livestock: 70 percent (47)
  • Human beings who could be fed by the grain and soybeans eaten by U.S. livestock: 1,400,000,000
  • World’s population living in the United States: 4 percent
  • World’s beef eaten in the United States: 23 percent (48)

The amount of grain needed to produce 1 pound of U.S. beef, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association is 4.5 pounds. (49) In a world where people starve, this would be wasteful enough. However, according to figures from the USDA Economic Research Service and Agricultural Research Service, the amount of grain needed to produce 1 pound of U.S. feedlot beef is far more—16 pounds. (50) The cattlemen take issue with this. According to them, “The statement that it takes 12–16 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef is absolutely false. This estimate is based on the false assumption that beef animals are fed grain diets from birth to market weight.” (51) In reality, however, the statement that it takes 12–16 pounds of grain is not based on the assumption that beef animals are fed grain diets from birth to market weight. It’s based on USDA figures, according to which the animals are kept in feedlots for approximately 100 days and fed about 20 pounds of grain a day. In this time, the animals gain approximately 300 pounds, of which (at most) only 120 pounds, or 40 percent, is beef for human consumption (the other 60 percent are those parts of the animal that are inedible). Thus feeding the animal 2,000 pounds of grain yields 120 pounds of beef. By these figures, it takes nearly 17 pounds of grain for each pound of beef returned. In 2000, the founder of Worldwatch Institute, Lester Brown, estimated that cattle require 7 pounds of grain to add 1 pound of live weight. (52) Since 40 percent of live weight is edible for humans, this figure indicates it actually takes slightly more than 17 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef. While the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association regularly seeks to downplay the costs of U.S. beef production, others in the industry are more sober. Peter R. Cheeke, Professor of Animal Agriculture at Oregon State University, takes note of reality:

“Beef has become a symbol of the extravagant, resource-consuming American who is destroying the global environment to live a life of luxury, while most of the rest of the world suffer pestilence and famine. . . . Strictly on a scientific basis, there can be no dispute that corn and soybean meal are used with more efficiency, and can provide food for more people when they are eaten directly by people rather than being fed to swine or poultry to be converted to pork, chicken meat, or eggs for human consumption.” (53)

What We Know Number of people whose food energy needs can be met by the food produced on 2.5 acres of land: (54)

  • If the land is producing cabbage: 23 people
  • If the land is producing potatoes: 22 people
  • If the land is producing rice: 19 people
  • If the land is producing corn: 17 people
  • If the land is producing wheat: 15 people
  • If the land is producing chicken: 2 people
  • If the land is producing milk: 2 people
  • If the land is producing eggs: 1 person
  • If the land is producing beef: 1 person
  • Grain needed to adequately feed every one of the people on the entire planet who die of hunger and hunger-caused disease annually: 12 million tons
  • Amount Americans would have to reduce their beef consumption to save 12 millions tons of grain: 10 percent

Editor's Note: Continue to Reversing the Spread of Hunger, Part III References: 30. Gardner and Halweil, “Underfed and Overfed.” 31. Ibid. 32. Ibid. 33. Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2000 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), p. 61. 34. Ibid. 35. Ayres, God’s Last Offer, p. 73. 36. “Ending Malnutrition by 2020: An Agenda for Change in the Millennium,” released March 20, 2000. 37. Durning and Brough, “Taking Stock,” p. 15. 38. Pimentel, David, and Hall, Carl, eds., Food and Natural Resources (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1989), p. 80. 39. Ibid. 40. “Cattle Feeding,” in “Myths and Facts about Beef Production.” 41. Ibid. 42. “Claims and Responses Regarding Cattle Production: A Response to Claims Made in Diet for a New America,” National Cattlemen’s Association Fact Sheet, (Englewood, CO: National Cattlemen’s Association, 1990). 43. 1993/1994 World Maize Facts and Trends (Mexico City: CIMMYT), pp. 50, 52; see also Ensminger, Animal Science, p. 23. 44. Ibid. 45. 1992 Census of Agriculture, Table 0A, U.S. Dept of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. 46. Ibid. 47. Durning, and Brough, “Taking Stock,” p. 14. See also Ayres, Ed, “Will We Still Eat Meat? Maybe Not, If We Wake Up to What the Mass Production of Animal Flesh Is Doing to Our Health, and the Planet’s,” Time, November 8, 1999. 48. Halweil, “United States Leads World Meat Stampede.” 49. “Cattle Feeding,” in “Myths and Facts about Beef Production.” 50. Lappé, Frances Moore, Diet for a Small Planet, 20th anniversary ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), pp. 69, 445–6. 51. National Cattlemen’s Association, “Fact Sheet” Retort to the PBS Documentary, Diet for a New America,” 1991. 52. Brown, Lester, “Fish Farming May Soon Overtake Cattle Ranching as a Food Source,” Worldwatch Institute Issue Alert 9, October 3, 2000. 53. Cheeke, Peter, Contemporary Issues in Animal Agriculture, 2nd ed. (Danville, IL: Interstate Publishers, 1999), p. 74. 54. Spedding, C. R. W., “The Effect of Dietary Changes on Agriculture,” in Lewis, B. and Assmann, G., eds., The Social and Economic Contexts Of Coronary Prevention (London: Current Medical Literature, 1990), cited in World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research, Food, Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective (1997), p. 557. See also Pimentel and Hall, Food and Natural Resources.

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