Fighting hunger one bite at a time

May 10, 2008 

Ntombi must be so hungry — and so desperate. That’s all I can think as I read the endless stream of headlines about skyrocketing food prices. Amid the talk of abstract economic factors, her memory brings home the human cost of the worldwide food shortage. I met Ntombi a few years ago when I was serving as a volunteer physician in South Africa. An HIV-positive mother of three children, she was struggling to raise her family on about a dollar a day.

During my time in sub-Saharan Africa, I met many other women much like her. Their lives were hard then. But as rice and corn prices approach record highs, their very survival may be at stake.

How did it come to this?

Global food prices have risen more than 80 percent in the past three years, according to the World Bank. We see the results here in the United States, where Sam’s Club and Costco have rationed rice.

In the developing world, escalating food insecurity has driven people to the brink of desperation, sparking riots in Mexico, Haiti and Somalia.

The scarcity and price spikes can be chalked up to a range of causes, from droughts and high oil prices to increased use of cropland for production of ethanol and other biofuels. But there is another key factor — the cheeseburger on your plate. Meat-heavy diets play an important role in world hunger, primarily because animal agriculture is a deeply inefficient way to produce food.

In 2006, researchers at the University of Chicago noted that raising animals for food requires 10 times as many crops as those required to support plant-based diets. Industrial meat production also requires enormous inputs of water, energy and other resources.

That’s why rising rates of meat consumption in China and India, where a growing number of middle-class people are adopting Western dietary patterns, spell deep trouble for the world’s food supplies. In China, per capita meat consumption has increased 150 percent since 1980.

But before Americans point the finger at consumers in Beijing, we should consider our own enormous appetite for cheeseburgers and chicken wings. We raise and kill about 10 billion farm animals a year in this country, and per-capita meat consumption here has risen 50 percent over the past 50 years.

That requires massive resources. About 70 percent of corn grown in America is used as feed for cattle, chicken and other animals, and more than 60 percent of the entire landmass of the lower 48 states is used for growing feed or raising animals. Our meat dependency also has serious environmental consequences.

In late April, a report from the Pew Commission found that industrial animal farms cause massive pollution and endanger human health. A recent United Nations report indicted animal agriculture as playing a key role in global warming.

But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of America’s meat-heavy diet is the example we’re setting for the rest of the world. As U.S. fast-food chains like McDonald’s and KFC open hundreds of new restaurants in Asia, our high-fat, high-cholesterol dietary patterns are going global. That worldwide shift to meat-heavy diets is driving up obesity and heart disease rates among wealthy consumers in many developing countries, even as it leaves millions of others hungry.

It could get much worse. The world’s population is projected to top 9 billion by the middle of this century. If the global community tries to provide each of those people with the 200 pounds of meat eaten by the average American each year, we will face economic and environmental disaster.

But this is one international crisis that every single one of us can help solve — simply by moving away from our meat-heavy diets. If consumers in the United States and around the world begin choosing more vegetarian meals, we’ll free up grains, cropland and other important resources.

And we’ll take an important step toward ensuring that people like Ntombi have enough food to get through the day.

Hope Ferdowsian is associate director of the Washington Center for Clinical Research, a subsidiary of the nonprofit vegan group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. This essay was distributed by the McClatchy-Tribune News Service. Readers can write to the author at hferdowsian@pcrm.org.

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