Chapter 9 – Food
for a Future
Here’s a conundrum for you: What food is it that
the more we produce, the more people starve to death?
Give up? The answer’s meat!
Most people find that hard to believe, but it’s
true. The reason is that meat is an incredibly wasteful
way of producing food and on average, just to produce
1kg of it, 10kgs of vegetable protein is used. That vegetable
protein could be fed directly to people instead.
The reason this leads to starvation is because people
in the wealthy West use so many of the world’s
crops to feed their farm animals. It’s even worse
that that too; because the West has so much power it
can insist that some less wealthy countries grow food
for the West’s animals when they could be growing
it for their own people.
So what is the ‘West’ and who are these
wealthy people? The West is the part of the world which
controls most of the money, most industry and has the
best standard of living. It’s made up of the European
countries, including Britain, and the USA and Canada,
so it is sometimes referred to as ‘North’.
Although there are some wealthy countries in the ‘South’ such
as Japan, Australia and New Zealand, most countries in
the southern half of the world are comparatively poor.
About 5600 billion people share this planet, roughly
one third of them in the rich North and two-thirds in
the poorer South. In order to live, we all use the planet’s
crops and natural products – but we don’t
all use the same amounts. For example, a child born in
the USA will, throughout its life, use 12 times more
wood, copper, iron, water, land and so on.
Some of the reasons for these differences in wealth
lie back in history. Hundreds of years ago armies from
the North conquered countries in the South and turned
them into colonies – in effect, they now owned
them. They did it because these countries were rich in
all kinds of natural resources, including food.
The European colonists used the countries they invaded
to supply the products they needed for their industries.
Many people who lived in the colonies had their land
taken from them or had to grow crops for their European
colonists. During this period, millions of people in
Africa were also captured and taken back to Europe and
America to work as slaves. This was one reason why the
North became so rich and powerful.
Colonialism ended forty or fifty years ago after the
colonies won their independence, often by fighting for
it. Although countries such as Kenya and Nigeria, India
and Malaysia, Ghana and Pakistan are now supposed to
be independent, colonisation has left them poor and dependent
upon the North. And that’s how it still is in many
countries. So, when the North says it wants grain for
its cattle, the Southern countries don’t have much
choice but to grow it. It’s one of the few ways
they can get money to pay for the technology and industrialised
goods they need, things they can only buy from the North.
It isn’t just products and money that the North
has more of. It also has an unfair share of the world’s
food. Take Bangladesh and the USA again: the average
food intake for a Bangladeshi is 1930 calories per day,
while for an American it is 3650 calories. It has been
estimated that the minimum amount of food needed for
good health is 2360 calories per day. So you can see,
the average person in Bangladesh has too little food
while the average American eats too much. And about one-third
of the average American diet is meat.
Of course it isn’t just Americans who eat large
amounts of meat, it’s all populations in the wealthy
North. In Britain, the average amount of meat eaten per
person is 71kgs per year. In India, on the other hand,
the average is only 2kgs of meat per person. The average
American eats 112kgs of meat every year, a lot of which
is beef. In the United States, children between the ages
of 7 and 13 eat nearly six-and-a-half hamburgers each
week; and fast food restaurants alone sell 6.7 billion
hamburgers every year.
This enormous appetite for hamburgers has an effect
on the whole world. It’s only in this century and
particularly since the war that people have started eat
meat in such a big way – and now meat-eaters are
literally devouring the earth. Believe it or not, there
are three times as many farm animals in the world as
there are people – 16.8 billion of them. Animals
have huge appetites and can munch their way through mountains
of food. But most of what goes in one end comes out the
other end and is wasted. All animals farmed for meat
eat more protein than they produce – even the most
efficient. Pigs eat 9kgs of vegetable protein to produce
1kg of meat, while chickens eat about 5kgs for 1kg of
meat. The remaining kilograms are mainly lost as manure.
Animals in the USA alone eat enough wheat and soya beans
to feed 1900 million people – about one-third of
all the people in the world, or the whole population
of India and China put together. But there are so many
cows that even that’s not enough and to keep these
non-stop munching machines going, yet more cattle food
is imported from abroad. The USA even buys beef from
the poor countries of Central and South America, and
all these cattle have to be fed in a similar way.
Perhaps the worst example of waste is in Haiti, officially
one of the poorest countries in the world where most
people have to survive on 1900 calories per day. Much
of the country’s best agricultural land is used
to grow a kind of grass called alfalfa and big international
companies fly their cattle to Haiti to graze on the alfalfa
and put on weight. The animals are then killed and the
carcasses are flown back to the USA to provide even more
To make way for this American cattle, the ordinary people
of Haiti are pushed back on to the mountain slopes, where
they must farm on the poorest land. To grow enough food
here to survive, they overuse the land until it becomes
poor and useless, and eventually just blows away in the
wind. It’s a vicious circle which sees the people
of Haiti get poorer and poorer.
But it isn’t just American cattle which are consuming
all the world’s food. The European Union (EU) is
the single largest importer of animal feeds in the world – and
60 per cent of this comes from countries in the South.
Try and imagine how much space would be taken up if you
lumped together the whole of Britain, France, Italy and
New Zealand. That’s the amount of land taken up
in the poorer countries of the world to grow food for
Europe’s animals. And that’s on top of all
the fields already in use in Europe for grazing and growing
animal feed crops.
Grazing and feeding the 16.8 billion animals farmed
for meat is using up more and more of the world’s
agricultural land. What’s even more frightening
is that the amount of land for growing food is dwindling
rapidly while every year the number of people being born
is growing. The two sums just don’t add up.
As a result, the poorest two-thirds of the planet are
sliding deeper and deeper into a life of starvation in
order to support the wealthiest one-third. In 1995, the
World Health Organisation issued a strongly worded report
called Bridging the Gaps which described the situation
as a global catastrophe. According to this report, hundreds
of millions of people in the South spend their whole
lives in extreme poverty, and about 11 million children
die every year from diseases caused by starvation. The
gap between North and South is growing wider and if things
don’t change, famine, poverty and disease will
spread even more rapidly throughout two-thirds of the
The tremendous waste of food and land used for producing
meat is at the heart of this problem. According to Sir
Crispin Tickell of Oxford University, a UK Government
adviser on environmental issues, it is logistically impossible
to feed the world’s population of 5.6 billion on
a meat-based diet. There just aren’t enough resources.
Only 2.5 billion people – less than half the world’s
total – could be fed on a diet in which 35 per
cent of the calories people consumed came from meat.
(The very diet now eaten in the USA).
Just imagine how much land could be saved and how many
people could be fed if all vegetable protein wasted on
animals was fed directly to people instead. And before
you say; ‘But I don’t eat grass!’,
I’m not just talking about grass. Nearly 40 per
cent of the world’s wheat and corn is fed to animals
and huge amounts of land are given over to growing things
such as alfalfa, peanuts, turnips and tapioca to be used
as animal food. This land could just as easily be used
to grow food for people.
If the whole world ate a vegetarian diet – that’s
plant foods and dairy products such as milk, cheese and
butter – Tickell states there would be enough food
right now to feed 6 billion people well. In fact, if
everyone became vegan and cut out all dairy products
and eggs, the world’s population could be fed on
one quarter of the land used at present!
Of course eating meat isn’t the only cause of
world hunger but it is one of the most important. So,
never let anyone tell you that veggies care only about
My son persuaded myself and my wife, Caroline, to become
vegetarians by pointing out that if the world ate the
grain instead of feeding it to farm animals, no one would
Tony Benn, MP
Special Bonus Fact
An area of land the size of 5 football pitches (10 hectares)
will grow enough:
Meat to feed 2 people or. . .
Maize to feed 10 people or. . .
Grain to feed 24 people or. . .
Soya to feed 61 people