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Agenda for a New America
The Politics of Vegetarianism
By: Vasu Murti
Chapter 9 - Why Hunger?
Many of us believe that hunger exists because there's not enough food to go around. But as Frances Moore Lappe' and her anti-hunger organization Food First! have shown, the real cause of hunger is a scarcity of justice, not a scarcity of food.
Hunger is really a social disease caused by the unjust, inefficient and wasteful control of food. In Costa Rica, beef production quadrupled between 1960 and 1980, but almost all this beef is exported to the United States, and what does stay in he country is eaten by a tiny minority. Though more and more Costa Rican land is being turned over to meat production, the population is not eating more meat for the change. The average family in Costa Rica eats less meat than the average American housecat.
In country after country the pattern is repeated. Livestock industries are consuming feed to such an extent that now almost all Third World nations must import grain. Seventy-five percent of Third World imports of corn, barley, sorghum, and oats are fed to animals, not to people. In country after country, the demand for meat among the rich is Squeezing out staple production for the poor.
The same trend can be found in the Middle East and North Africa--increases in grain-fed livestock require more imported feed. 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. As a result, Egypt must now import eight million tons of grain every year.
Twenty-five years ago, Syria was a barley exporter. But in the intervening years, livestock has consumed increasing amounts of the country's grain. Now, despite a phenomenal 1,000 percent increase in the land area devoted to producing barley, Syria must import the cereal.
Because of its reliance on livestock agriculture, Israel's economy depends heavily on groundwater use. You can't make the desert bloom through sheer hard work; it requires water. Today Israel is heavily dependent on water from the West Bank, and the Israeli press is full of talk of retaining the West Bank in order to protect water supplies from encroaching Arab wells. One analyst gloomily concludes that the water in the West Bank region--which the Israelis captured from the Arabs in the 1967 war--is "fast becoming the most ominous obstacle to any peaceful settlement in the region."
Any economy that relies on meat production is in serious trouble. Any social system which persists in putting an emphasis on meat production will be progressively weakened until it as destroyed or until its policies are changed. The amount of time which will pass before a serious social disaster sets in, of course, will vary from region to region. In the case of the United Stages, which still has abundant agriculture resources, there are probably many decades left. In the case of Africa, the disaster is there today.
Regardless of social system or ideology, any country that emphasizes meat production is going to make its food situation worse. In the richer nations, food may simply become somewhat more costly. If the livestock industry is subsidized by the government--as is the case in both the United States and the Soviet Union--then other areas of the economy may suffer, as they are sacrificed go keep agriculture afloat. In the poorer nations, food may become unavailable to many and starvation may result.
In Ethiopia and Mozambique, we have two cases of very poor countries which have relied heavily on livestock agriculture with tragic results. In both countries, thousands have died and tens of thousands more are in danger of dying. In both countries, livestock agriculture has played a key role in crippling the ability of the food system to produce food. Ecological disaster is not new in Africa. Northern Africa, once the granary of the Roman Empire, was reduced to a barren wasteland by the pastoral nomads which entered the area after the Empire's collapse. The march of the Sahara desert southward, preceded by large herds of livestock animals, has been observed for decades. Numerous independent observers have confirmed that soil erosion today is rampant in Africa. The destruction has been savage. Fifty years ago, 40% of Ethiopia was covered with trees, while only 2% to 4% is covered with trees today.
So the famine in Ethiopia during the 1980s should not have been a surprise. Many blamed the drought, the civil war, or governmental incompetence in pushing the country over the edge into starvation; and certainly these factors played a role. but we cannot ignore the ecological realities which are the underlying conditions responsible for Ethiopia's getting to the brink of disaster in the first place. Overgrazing by cattle has played a key role in Ethiopia's decline.
Incredibly, while the people are starving, Ethiopia today has a larger livestock population than any other country in Africa, though it is only ninth in total land area!
Similar problems have affected Mozambique. Here we have a country which recently liberated itself from colonialism. Yet Mozambique then proceeded to import beef from abroad to satisfy the demands of the urban elite for meat. Perhaps even worse, they are intensifying their production of corn--one of the most erosive of all plant foods--and feeding it to their cattle! This is a recipe for disaster and a most depressing pattern throughout many third world countries. They throw out colonialism, but they keep or even intensify the colonial system of food production.
Go on to Chapter 10 - Meat and Water
Return to The Politics of Vegetarianism Table of Contents
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