By Drew Winter, guest blogger,
Humane Research Council
A recent issue of BEEF Daily, an industry e-newsletter, characterized vegan and vegetarian advocates as hindering the meat industry's ability to "feed a growing population.” The rhetorical question of “How do we feed a growing population?” (the implied answer being “more intensive meat production”) has become an industry talking point. In fact, contemporary agriculture and meat production are anathema to a well-fed world. However, the common relationship between meat and world hunger is not as simple as some activists may think. To garner a better understanding of why this is the case, it is important to understand that industrial agriculture--whether specifically for animal products or not--is invested in profit above all else.
The Industry's View of Agriculture
Agriculture today, whether it be meat, grains, or fruits and vegetables, is highly industrialized and highly concentrated in the hands of a few mega corporations. Today, just four cereal manufacturers control over 70 percent of the world’s ready-to-eat cereal market  and fewer “than ten transnational food companies control virtually every aspect of the worldwide food chain.” These highly concentrated and centralized food companies are often highly vertically integrated, meaning they operate many (if not all) stages of the process from growing in the fields to sale in the supermarket. These oligopolies are both the result and the cause of a transition in agriculture towards corporate-controlled and extremely powerful private enterprise, a vision whose American roots came under the leadership of senior members of the USDA in the 1970s.
"Get big or get out" has long been an industry motto, implying that small independent farmers would have increasing difficulty competing with larger food conglomerates. In the United States, this has translated to a fundamental shift in the way farm subsidies are allocated, drastically reducing the number of independent family farms. Most small farms you see are likely contractors for major corporations, under legal agreements prone to leaving the farmer in debt and without legal recourse. Some are members of a "cooperative" that—despite its egalitarian namesake—are largely undemocratic and subservient to corporate interest. This is even worse in many less developed countries, such as India, where “free trade” policies enacted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank have driven farmers into such debt that over 200,000 have committed suicide since 1997.
Globalized Markets and the Hungry
The result of these policies, both in the US and across the globe, is a food system in which a very small number of people control virtually the entire food supply, and the food system is structured in a way that maximizes profit.
The meat industry’s premise is that industrial meat production, in the form of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) (better known as “factory farms”) are a reaction to unavoidable rises in demand to “feed a growing population.” The supply-demand relationship is a simple, straightforward way of conveying the need to produce more food to support more people. Simple, straightforward, and enticing, but false.
There is currently enough food produced in the world to feed approximately 12 billion people. Yet over 900 million people are hungry. But if this increased supply (which is heavily subsidized) does not lead to meeting higher demands, what is the purpose of the excess supply?
Part of the reason for an increase in world hunger has been the result of countries shifting away from food crops for the local population and towards cash crops for foreign markets. To quote food rights activist Vandana Shiva, "[W]e are witnessing today the gradual dismembering of the historical means by which people produce food for themselves and their communities."
Many Latin American countries, for example, have privatized previously usufruct land that was farmed by locals for food, and turned it over to US-based multinational corporations like Chiquita (formerly United Fruit Company) and Dole, who used the land to cultivate bananas for export and hired foreigners as wage laborers. The cash crop was exported, along with the lion's share of the profits, and the lack of local food and poor wages made eating more difficult, since the crops were sold at a price acceptable to people in developed countries, but not the countries in which they were grown. Resistance to this privatization was often met with brutal repression, including kidnapping, torture, and murder.
The business model led to record corporate profits. The logic of globalization promised that producing for domestic consumption was irrelevant in a globalized marketplace where one country's drought could be made up by the surplus of another. This has not, however, been borne out by the facts, and many countries with vibrant export crops have neither a corresponding quality of life or access to food.
Meat Production: Public Relations vs. Reality
The claim of the need for more food is often linked to meat, milk, and egg production—the global supply was 71 million tons in 1961, and climbed to 284 million tons in 2007, with per capita consumption more than doubling in the same period. Consumption rose twice as fast in developing countries, doubling in just the last 20 years. It is expected to double again by 2050. According to the industry logic, increased demand means reflexively increasing supply to meet the population's needs. Increased meat production increases world hunger by raising the demand on feedstuffs to feed the animals raised and killed for that meat and the industry’s billions of dollars in marketing to push their product, is completely eschewed from this line of thought.
Does Meat Cause World Hunger?
It is not exactly true that meat consumption “causes” world hunger, as there is enough food—even with the inefficiencies of meat production—to feed the current world population. However, as stated above, meat consumption often—within our contemporary system of globalized food markets and neoliberal trade policies—contributes to world hunger by making it more profitable for transnational corporations to produce crops for export as animal feed than to grow crops to feed the local population. This creates a lack of supply and an increase in local prices that makes it more difficult for many developing countries, even if they have vibrant agriculture, to adequately feed themselves. Food expert Dr. Walter Pengue called the rise of cash crops like soy “a battle for high quality protein between developed and developing countries.”
It should be noted that meat is not the only crop that can cause supply issues for poorer countries; the increased popularity of quinoa has made it cost-prohibitive to some populations that previously regarded it as a staple.
A Real Solution?
The problem of global hunger is a complex one, with numerous related and dynamic variables: population size, agricultural methods, trade policy, and type of food produced, to name the most influential. Attempting to solve world hunger by affecting only one of these variables will not lead to an appropriate solution to the problem. The single most effective solution would be a new global food policy that eliminates the neoliberal policies that have turned food into a global commodity based on market demands, which has been an utter failure. But policy that properly allocates food without regard for other factors, such as meat production or industrial cultivation methods, will run into other problems. As scholar Sandy Ross points out, the current abundant supply of food is dependent on these industrial methods to produce such a large supply. But those industrial methods are extremely toxic to our ecology; while we are well aware of the many environmental problems associated with CAFOs, the soybean production to feed its livestock are also an environmental catastrophe that is obliterating the Amazon rainforest. Continued demand at this rate—much less the estimated doubling by 2050, is fundamentally unsustainable.
Ultimately, what we can take away from this analysis, is that any attempt by the meat industry to pose itself as part of the solution is erroneous, and in actuality it is part of the problem. Industrial meat production is a needless luxury that is vastly inefficient, and the increased demand for meat within a globalized food marketplace effectively takes food out of the mouths of the hungry, and money out of the pockets of the poorest and smallest farmers, and further concentrates both in the hands of the privileged few. In doing so, it produces more than enough food without distributing it to those who need it, and relies on a system of factory farming and monoculture that destroys biodiversity, lowers water quality, and is unsustainable. Meat consumption is not the sole factor in world hunger, but the market forces it creates are a contributing factor and corporate food—not just meat—must be abolished if we want to live sustainably and well fed.
- Stanford C Bernstein, found in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security – The Impact of Globalization
- Grigg, 1993, pp. 236-55
- Shiva, 2002
- For a more in-depth look, see Aviva Chomsky’s West Indian Workers and the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica
- “'Soyization' and food security in South America”, by Nave Wald, Christopher Rosin and Doug Hill
- Bittman, 2008