This article first appeared on the website of the Woodstock Sanctuary in 2013:
Of the world’s nearly 6.8 billion humans, almost 1 billion people are malnourished, and 6 million children starve to death every year. Feeding half the world’s grain crop (1) to animals raised for food instead of directly to humans is not only grossly inefficient, but a disastrous waste of natural resources, depleting cultivable land, topsoil, water, forests, fossil fuels, and minerals. (2) Animal agriculture is the single greatest human-caused contributor of greenhouse gases to global warming, and the number one source of nitrogen pollution to freshwater rivers. (3) In addition to a vast web of human suffering and ecocide, consumption of meat, dairy and eggs causes unnecessary misery and death for nearly 60 billion land animals every year. This is not a niche issue– which is why the United Nations has called for a global shift to a vegan diet as the most effective way to combat climate change, world hunger, and ecological devastation. (4) To meet the daily nutritional needs of a rapidly expanding population, the world’s human community must wherever possible reduce its reliance on animal products and shift to a plant-based diet.
Eating Animals Wastes Global Food Supply
Animals raised for food actually take more from the global food supply than they provide. As much as 80% of the global soybean crop, and 40-50% of the annual corn crop are fed to cattle, pigs, chickens, and other livestock. (5) Grain-based feeds cause rapid weight gain, which allows industries to slaughter animals sooner. But feeding grain to animals is an extremely inefficient use of food. It takes roughly 6 ½ pounds of edible grain to produce just 2 pounds of meat. (6) Chickens fed a diet of corn and soybeans can only utilize 20% of the protein present in those grains, meaning that 80% is simply wasted; for pigs, 90% of the protein they are fed in grain is lost. (7) Most of the energy farm animals consume from grains and other sources of food is used to fuel their own metabolism and to form bones, cartilage, feathers, fur and other non-edible parts, as well as feces. (8)
Eating Animals Wastes Scarce Freshwater
In addition to depleting the global food supply, raising animals for meat, eggs and dairy also requires drastically greater quantities of water than raising plants for human consumption. It can take 5 times as much water to supply 10 grams of protein from beef than from rice, and 20 times more water to supply 500 calories from beef than from rice. (9) Additionally, tremendous amounts of water are needed for hydrating farm animals and an increasing amount is required— particularly at industrial operations—to clean cages, stalls, pens and sheds, to dispose of waste, and for cooling animals via misters or sprays during periods of high temperatures. (10)
Dependence on Livestock Imperils Malnourished Communities
Hungry nations do not need more livestock. In fact, food scarcity is not the major cause of hunger in most malnourished countries–poverty is: lack of income with which to buy food, and lack of access to markets, goods and services. (11) Impoverished nations need improved agricultural infrastructure, equitable distribution of resources, particularly of crops and land grown for crops, micro-lending initiatives to create jobs, and a long-term focus on producing more plant-based (and less resource-intensive) foods to sustainably feed rapidly growing populations. Ethiopia is a good case in point. Ethiopia is already home to Africa’s largest livestock population, is the continent’s top livestock exporter, and is the tenth largest livestock producer globally, yet more than six million Ethiopians are in need of emergency food aid. (12) Although there is significant dependence on livestock as a trading currency in very poor areas, and a deep-rooted cultural attachment to livestock as an indication of wealth or status, animal husbandry is not suited to the food needs of this booming population.
Like many countries in Africa, Ethiopia is prone to increasingly frequent cycles of drought; in a drought in 2000, over three million cattle, calves and milking cows died. (13) The devastating East African drought of 2011, as well as longer and increased cycles of drought over Africa in general, have been largely attributed to climate change. (14) Two of the most significant contributing factors to climate change are greenhouse gases and deforestation. The number one cause of both human-produced greenhouse gases, and of global deforestation? Animal agriculture. In a region devastated by increased drought cycles from climate change, shifting economic focus to increasing livestock production is not only absurd, but immoral. More livestock means more deforestation, more greenhouse gases and further degradation of soils.
Ethiopia has one of the highest rates of soil erosion worldwide, losing an average of two billion tons of soil each year, including nutrient-rich topsoil. Overgrazing has devastated much of the country’s rangeland, hastening desertification of once fertile soils. As livestock production increases, still more pressure will be put on natural resources, including Ethiopia’s dwindling forests and fresh water. From 1990 to 2000, slash-and-burn clearing of land for grazing and farming contributed to a deforestation rate of 0.93 percent per year, or a loss of 140,900 hectares of forest annually. Between 2000 and 2005, growing demand for land caused deforestation rates to rise to 1.03 percent. (15)
Yet the push to expand livestock production continues aggressively, from both internal and external sources. According to Berhe Igziabher, head of Ethiopia’s Animal and Plant Regulatory Board, “the country plans to transform the old and backward type of animal husbandry into a modern ranching system and export processed meat, hides and skin and other leather goods rather than live animals.” (16) In 2003, USAID launched a project to help modernize Ethiopia’s livestock industry by connecting small-scale pastoral producers directly with livestock exporters and policy makers. USAID is also working to support greater livestock production levels by developing the country’s marketing capacities and animal production infrastructure. But as has been noted, industrial-scale animal agriculture requires massive amounts of resources that are already scarce in this region: land, water and grain; and will contribute further environmental degradation and social destabilization. (17)
Inequitable Distribution of Crops and Cropland
Despite large areas of desertification, Ethiopia produces a wide range of nutrient-rich plant foods and is capable of producing a great deal more. But much of the fertile and cultivable cropland, tended for decades by small farmers, is being seized by government and leased to foreign investors who set up huge commercial agriculture operations, producing crops cheaply to sell back in their home markets. (18) In a forced relocation project called “villagization,” indigenous people, subsistence farmers and pastoralists are forced off the land, and forests and fields are razed, destroying wildlife and the communities that have lived on these lands for centuries. By 2013, at least 1.5 million people will have been forcibly resettled by the Ethiopian government in order to facilitate this land grab. Since 2008, Ethiopia has leased nearly 4 million hectares of land to foreign and domestic investors, and an additional 2.1 million hectares is available through the federal government’s land bank for agricultural investment (as of January 2011). These lands and livelihoods are being taken from the local population with no meaningful consultation or compensation. (19)
Another major contributor to hunger and food insecurity in Ethiopia (and many other malnourished nations) is the inequitable distribution of domestic crops, with most staple crops being exported. Although food shortages are a contributing factor to malnutrition, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) estimates that eighty percent of malnourished children in the developing world live in countries that produce food surpluses.(20) During the drought of 2011 that devastated over 12 million Africans, the most afflicted nations–Kenya and Ethiopia– continued to export cereals, beans, roots and tubers from crop regions unaffected by the ecological and economic collapse. Small farmers in western Kenya who experience more steady rains and harvests say they don’t move their crops to the drought-ravaged north because it costs too much to store and transport them, and because most people there would not be able to buy them. The reason for this? Pastoralist communities use their livestock as currency, selling off animals when they need cash. But drought kills a huge percentage of livestock and weakens the others to the point of little or no market value. Thus those populations dependent on livestock cannot afford food during drought, when their animals die. (21)
The Gift That Keeps on Taking
Impoverished nations must be helped toward less reliance on livestock, not more. Yet charitable organizations such as Heifer International and Oxfam, wedded to the dominionist paradigm, insist on pushing animal husbandry in regions where dependence on animals has exacted a devastating ecological and economic toll– impoverishing millions of humans, and inflicting slow starvation and death on millions of miserable animals. All farmed animals require food, large quantities of water (cows can drink up to 90 liters per day), shelter from weather extremes, and medical care. Yet these resources are in critically short supply in crisis-subsistence communities. The people of the Horn of Africa raise cattle and other livestock they cannot adequately feed or water, and mostly cannot even afford to slaughter until the animals are already dying, because the livestock are their currency. (22)
Whether in Africa, India, China or the U.S., animal agriculture is both ecologically and ethically unviable. With help, impoverished regions may be able to sustain their rapidly expanding human populations, but not by cycling scarce water and plant foods through animals first– all to produce only a fraction of the edible protein that would be available if plants were directly consumed.
Ethical, Sustainable Solutions to World Hunger
Necessary Local Efforts in Developing Countries
Equitable distribution of land and markets
In many countries and communities suffering from hunger epidemics, one of the most important steps toward reducing hunger is equitable distribution of land for growing of plant foods, which are the most efficient means of providing protein to billions of malnourished people. In the case of profiteering government land-leasing schemes that involve the forced displacement of villagers, this means returning said land to the small-scale farmers and indigenous stewards from whom it was seized. Along with fair allocation of farm land, equitable distribution of crops via local markets must also be encouraged. Small-scale farmers who export their harvests see no incentive to transport their crops to drought-afflicted regions of the country, because those communities will have lost their main form of currency, their livestock animals. Therefore, both the cultural attachment to livestock as status symbols, and the economic dependence on livestock as cash, must be drastically reduced, and alternative livelihoods introduced.
Improved agricultural infrastructure and basic technologies
Impoverished nations suffering from widespread malnourishment and hunger need better agricultural infrastructure and technologies. These include: rot-proof seed and grain storage, increased availability of local markets, improved access to transportation for moving crops to local markets, and installation of basic crop irrigation methods. Many of these basic technologies, along with the training needed to employ them, are services that charitable international organizations can provide. Although animal-exploitative groups like Heifer International and Oxfam are more well known, there are in fact several charitable outreach groups working on behalf of people and animals simultaneously, by promoting practical, sustainable, and ethically sound plant-based food projects. In addition to providing emergency food relief during hunger crises, these programs reduce dependence on livestock, and combat drought, by distributing seeds, fruit trees, and tools for fruit and vegetable growing, and installing water-conserving crop irrigation structures so that communities are not reliant on sporadic rain cycles for food supply.
A good example of such plant-based initiatives is the micro-irrigation project in Madowadi, a small settlement in northern Kenya, that provides an alternative livelihood to traditional pastoralists who have lost most of their animals to drought. Water is pumped by hand from a replenished reservoir to plastic pipes spaced with tiny holes around which plants are precisely placed such that moisture slowly and efficiently seeps into their roots, with no wasted water. Tomatoes, onions, kale and other plant foods are thriving. With irrigation, crops can be grown all year round, supplying families with sources of food as well as income from surplus harvest. Through initiatives like this one, thousands of people who lost their livestock to droughts are now farming crops and experiencing food security, improved nutrition, and access to healthcare and education as a result of more stable income.
With the help of groups like A Well-Fed World, VegFam, The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, International Fund for Africa, Food For Life, Concern Universal, and others, sustainable, long-term approaches to hunger that do not exploit animals or the environment are being implemented: micro-lending, creation of new job skills and markets, and tools and training for sound plant-based agriculture are transforming the lives of impoverished communities all over the world. These organizations need our support. But we must also commit to changes in our own food choices.
Necessary Global Efforts from All of Us
While we can devise better ways to produce food to mitigate ongoing food crises, we cannot produce more water. Water is a finite resource, and as the world population increases, we must adopt methods of food production that use less water, not more, in order to be able to grow enough food for everyone. Leading water scientists have just issued an urgent warning about global food supplies, indicating that the world’s population may have to switch to an almost completely vegetarian diet over the next 40 years in order to avoid catastrophic shortages. Animal-based foods require up to 10 times more water to produce than plant-based foods. Currently, humans derive about 20% of their protein from meat, eggs and dairy, but a reduction to at most 5% is being urged in order to ensure enough water to grow food for the extra 2 billion people expected to be alive by 2050. According to research by scientists at the Stockholm International Water Institute, if demand for meat continues to increase in prospering nations, and if developing nations follow the trend toward Western patterns of meat consumption, there will not be enough water available to produce enough food for the world’s population even a few decades from now. (23)
These findings echo a 2010 United Nations report in which the authors conclude that the single most important thing individuals and nations can do to combat global warming, ecological devastation, fuel scarcity, and world hunger, is to shift to a vegan diet. As the world population surges towards a predicted 9.1 billion people by 2050, global levels of meat and dairy consumption are unsustainable, says the report from United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) international panel of sustainable resource management: “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products…A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change away from animal products.” (24)
(1) The Humane Society, “The Impact of Industrialized Animal Agriculture on World Hunger”
(2) US Geological Survey, “Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2000.”
(3) PEW Environment Group, “Animal Agriculture and Water Pollution”
(4) The Guardian, “UN Urges Global Move To Meat and Dairy Free Diet”
(6) Nellemann C, MacDevette M, Manders T, et al., (eds.) 2009. The Environmental Food Crisis (Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme, p. 26).
(7) Smil V. 2000. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food
Production (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. x).
(8) Baroni L, Cenci L, Tettamanti M, and Berati M. 2007. Evaluating the environmental impact of various dietary patterns combined with different food production systems. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 61:279-86
(9) Postel S. 2006. Safeguarding freshwater ecosystems. In: Worldwatch Institute. 2006. State of the World 2006 (New York: W.W. Norton, p. 54).
(10) Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, Castel V, Rosales M, and de Haan C. 2006. Livestock’s long shadow:
environmental issues and options. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, pp. 128-129.
(11) World Watch Institute, Escaping Hunger, Escaping Excess
(12) Brighter Green: Climate, Food Security & Growth–Ethiopia’s Challenge With Livestock
(13) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Press Release
(14) The Guardian, Drought in East Africa the Result of Climate Change and Conflict
(15) Brighter Green: Climate, Food Security & Growth–Ethiopia’s Challenge With Livestock
(16) Brighter Green: Climate, Food Security & Growth–Ethiopia’s Challenge With Livestock
(17) Brighter Green: Climate, Food Security & Growth–Ethiopia’s Challenge With Livestock
(18) Peebles, Graham, The Ethiopian Land Giveaway
(19) Human Rights Watch, “Waiting Here For Death: Displacement and ‘Villagization’ in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region”
(20) WorldWatch Institute, Escaping Hunger, Escaping Excess
(21) Clifton, Merritt, Animal Husbandry and the Horn of Africa Famine
(22) Clifton, Merritt, Animal Husbandry and the Horn of Africa Famine
(23) Vidal, John, Food Shortages Could Force World Into Vegetarianism, Scientists Warn (The Guardian)
(24) UN Urges Global Move to Meat and Dairy-Free Diet