Vegetarians International Voice for Animals

Feed the World

Why eating meat is a major cause of world hunger - and going vegetarian is a solution.

Introduction by Jeremy Rifkin

Meat makes the rich ill and the poor hungry by Jeremy Rifkin

 When representatives meet at the World Food Summit they supposedly focus on how to get food into the mouths of nearly one billion people who are currently undernourished. However, at all the dinners they attend you can expect to see the consumption of large quantities of meat. And herein lies the contradiction.

People go hungry because much of arable land is used to grow feed grain for animals rather than people. In the US, 157 million tons of cereals, legumes and vegetable protein – all suitable for human consumption – is fed to livestock to produce just 28 million tons of animal protein in the form of meat.

In developing countries, using land to create an artificial food chain has resulted in misery for hundreds of millions of people. An acre of cereal produces five times more protein than an acre used for meat production; legumes such as beans, peas and lentils can produce 10 times more protein and, in the case of soya, 30 times more.

Global corporations which supply the seeds, chemicals and cattle and which control the slaughterhouses, marketing and distribution of beef, eagerly promote grain-fed livestock. They equate it with a country’s prestige and climbing the “protein ladder” becomes the mark of success.

Enlarging their meat supply is the first step for all developing countries. They start with chicken and egg production and, as their economies grow, climb the protein ladder to pork, milk, and dairy products, then to grass-fed beef and finally to grain-fed beef. Encouraging this process advances the interests of agribusinesses and two-thirds of the grain exported from the USA goes to feed livestock. The process really got underway when “green revolution” technology produced grain surpluses in the 1970s. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation encouraged it and the USA government linked its food aid programme to the producing of feed grain and gave low-interest loans to establish grain-fed poultry operations. Many nations have attempted to remain high on the protein ladder long after the grain surpluses disappeared.

Human consequences of the shift from food to feed were dramatically illustrated during the Ethiopian famine in 1984. While people starved, Ethiopia was growing linseed cake, cottonseed cake and rapeseed meal for European livestock. Millions of acres of land in the developing world are used for this purpose. Tragically, 80 per cent of the world’s hungry children live in countries with food surpluses which are fed to animals for consumption by the affluent.

The irony is that millions of consumers in the first world are dying from diseases of affluence such as heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and cancer, brought on by eating animal products, while the world’s poor are dying from diseases of poverty. We are long overdue for a global discussion on how to promote a diversified, high-protein, vegetarian diet for the human race.

Jeremy Rifkin is the author of Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture (Plume, 1992), and The Biotech Century (Victor Gollancz,1998). He is also the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington DC, USA.


Despite the rich diversity of foods found all over the world, one third of its population does not have enough to eat. Today, hunger is a massive problem in many parts of Africa, Asia and South America and the future is not looking good. The global population is set to rise from 6.5 billion (2006) to 9.3 billion by 2050 (2) and Worldwatch reports (3) forecast severe global food shortages leading to famine on an unprecedented scale.

This misery is partly a direct result of our desire to eat meat. Children in the developing world starve next to fields of food destined for export as animal feed, to support the meat-hungry cultures of the rich world. While millions die, one third of the world's grain production is fed to farmed animals in rich countries (4).

If animal farming were to stop and we were to use the land to grow grain to feed ourselves, we could feed every single person on this planet. Consuming crops directly - rather than feeding them to animals and then eating animals - is a far more efficient way to feed the world. This Viva! Guide looks at why eating meat is a major cause of world hunger and how vegetarianism can provide a solution.

The roots of hunger

The developing world hasn't always been hungry. Early explorers of the 16th and 17th centuries often returned amazed at the huge amounts of food they saw there. In parts of Africa, for example, people always had three harvests in storage and no-one went hungry. The idea of buying and selling food was unheard of.

The Industrial Revolution changed all that. European countries needed cheap raw materials such as coal and iron ore that developing countries had plenty of. Through the process of invasion and colonisation, Western countries could not only take the raw materials but claim the land as their own and make the indigenous people pay taxes or rent. Poor peasants (many of whom had never dealt in money before) were forced to grow crops such as cotton to sell to their new masters. Wealthy countries owned the land, all the food that was produced, and decided the price. After paying taxes, peasants had little money left to buy this expensive food and often ended up borrowing money simply to live. This whole process of colonisation continued right up to the beginning of the last century.

The problem today

Drought and other 'natural' disasters are often wrongly blamed for causing famines. Local people have always planned for freak acts of nature and although they may be the trigger that starts a famine, the underlying cause is the system of modern day neo-colonialism.

The land in poor countries is still largely not owned by the people who work on it and rents are high. Huge areas are owned by large companies based in the West. It is common for people to be thrown off the land, often going to the towns where there is little other work. About 160,000 people move from rural areas to cities every day (5). Many migrants are forced to settle in shanty towns and squatter settlements.

Much of this land is used to grow “cash crops” for export - like coffee, tobacco and animal feed  - rather than to grow food for indigenous people. Countries agree to grow cash crops in order to pay off their crippling debts. Fifty-two of the world’s poorest countries owe the rich world in the region of £213 billion. Annual repayments total £14 billion - the majority of this from countries where most people are living on less than one dollar a day (see p7: Why are countries in debt?). (6)

The sad irony is that the world produces more than enough plant food to meet the needs of all its six billion people. If people used land to grow crops to feed themselves, rather than feeding crops to animals, then there would be enough to provide everyone with the average of 2360 Kcal (calories) needed for good health (7).

If everyone were to take 25 per cent of their calories from animal protein then the planet could sustain only three billion people (8). In simple, brutal terms, if we were all to imitate the average North American diet, we would only be able to feed half the world’s population.

Breeding animals means starving people

Breeding animals is an incredibly inefficient way to try and feed the world's growing population. Yet after food rationing during the second world war, intensive animal farming was actively encouraged as a way of ensuring our future “food security”.

Most meat in Western Europe is now produced in factory farms which, as the name implies, are production lines for animals. To meet the large demand for meat, billions of animals are kept in cramped, filthy conditions, often unable to move properly and not allowed fresh air or even natural light. Unable to feed outdoors naturally, they are fed grain, oil seeds, soya feed, fish meal and sometimes the remains of other animals. High quality land is used to grow grains and soya beans - land that could be used to grow crops for humans.

The grain fed to animals does not convert directly into meat to feed people. The vast majority is either excreted or used as “fuel” to keep the animal alive and functioning. For every 10 kilograms of soya protein fed to America’s cattle only one kilogram is converted to meat. Almost the entire population of India and China, nearly two billion people, could be fed on the protein consumed and largely wasted by the United States’ beef herd (10).

Because of the demand for animal feed, a Western meat-based diet uses four and a half times more land than is necessary for a vegan diet and two and a quarter times more than for a vegetarian diet (11). The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) recommend that people reduce their intake of dairy and meat products in order to reduce grazing pressure on land (12).

Where does the animal feed come from?

The amount of land used to grow animal feed in Western countries is not enough to meet their own needs and more is imported from developing countries. Land in some developing countries, like India, is also used to grow grain for animals who are reared and killed for export.

Currently farmed animals eat one-third of the world’s cereal production. In the industrialised world, two-thirds of the agricultural land produces cereals for animal feed. The EU imports 45 per cent of its oilseeds (soya) and, overall, imports 70 per cent of its protein for animal feed (1995-6). As the European Commission admits, ‘Europe’s agriculture is capable of feeding Europe’s people but not of feeding Europe’s animals’ (4). The EU also imports cattle feed such as peanuts or soya because it is cheaper than buying animal feed grown in Europe.

At the height of the Ethiopian famine in 1984-5, Britain imported £1.5 million worth of linseed cake, cottonseed cake and rape seed meal. Although none of this was fit for humans to eat, good quality farmland was still being used to grow animal feed for rich countries when it could have been used to grow food for Ethiopians. 
In the United States, farmed animals, mostly cattle, consume almost twice as much grain as is eaten by the entire US population (13). 70 per cent of all the wheat, corn and other grain produced goes to feeding animals (14). Over 100 million acres of US agricultural land is used to grow grain for animals (13) and still more is imported.

In Central and South America, ever-increasing amounts of land are being used to grow soya beans and grain for export - to be used as animal feed. In Brazil, 23 per cent of the cultivated land is currently being used to produce soya beans, of which nearly half are for export (13). The Oxfam Poverty Report explains that the subsidised expansion of the EU’s dairy and livestock industry has created a huge demand for high protein animal feedstuffs and that the demand has in part been met through the expansion of large-scale, mechanised soya production in Brazil. Smallholder producers of beans and staple foods in the southern part of the country have been displaced to make way for giant soya estates. Soya has now become the country’s major agricultural export, “however, it is a trading arrangement which had proved considerably more efficient at feeding European cattle than with maintaining the livelihoods of poor Brazilians.” (16)

Twenty-five years ago, livestock consumed less than six per cent of Mexico’s grain. Today, at least one third of the grain produced in the country is being fed to animals. At the same time, millions of people living in the country are chronically undernourished (13).

It’s not surprising that the World Health Organisation has called for a shift away from meat production so that people can consume crops directly. It says:

“Farming policies that do not require intensive animal production systems would reduce the world demand for cereals. Use of land could be reappraised since cereal consumption for direct consumption by the population is much more efficient and cheaper than dedicating large areas to growing feed for meat production and dairying. Policies should be geared to the growing of plant foods and to limiting the promotion of meat and dairy.” (17)

Governments worldwide have ignored this advice. Instead of promoting the growing of plant foods for human consumption, they offer subsidy payments and financial incentives to livestock farmers, thereby actively encouraging meat production.

Who is hungry?

Around six billion people share the planet, one quarter in the rich north and three quarters in the poor south. While people in rich countries diet because they eat too much, many in the developing world do not have enough food simply to ensure their bodies work properly and stay alive.

826 million people around the world are seriously undernourished - 792 million people in developing countries and another 34 million in industrialised countries (18). Two billion people - one third of the global population - lack food security, defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as a “state of affairs where all people at all times have access to safe and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” (5)

Today, some 12 million children die annually of nutrition-related diseases. The Food and Agriculture Organisation says, “Doubtless, far more are chronically ill.” (19)

There are more chronically hungry people in Asia and the Pacific, but the depth of hunger is greatest in sub-Saharan Africa. In 46 per cent of countries there, the undernourished have an average deficit of more than 300 kilocalories per day (19). In 1996-98, 28 per cent of the population on the African continent were chronically undernourished (192 million people) (20).

Access to food is a basic right, enshrined in a number of human rights instruments to which states around the world have committed themselves. At the 1996 World Food Summit, leaders from 185 countries and the European Community reaffirmed, in the Rome Declaration on Food Security, “the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.” They pledged to cut the number of the world’s hungry people in half by 2015 (21) .

The FAO says that, “eradicating hunger is not merely a lofty ideal” (21). Yet it makes no sense for states to acknowledge the right of each individual to food whilst promoting diets based around animal protein. Starvation does not occur because of a world food shortage. If everyone ate a vegetarian, or better still, a vegan diet there would be enough food for everyone. The only sane way forward is to grow food for humans rather than to feed it to farmed animals.

World Trade

A report, The European Meat Industry in the 1990s, explains the obscene paradox of global food distribution: “World trade relations are dominated by low-priced animal feed and meat. Low prices on animal feeds affect farmers in poor countries producing cash crops [ie animal feed crops for export]. Partly due to the use of imported feed, the rich countries today have a large surplus of meat while more and more people in less developed countries tend to be undernourished” (22).

Current trade agreements, like the Agreement on Agriculture under the World Trade Organisation (WTO), permit Western farmers to sell subsidised grain and other commodity surpluses cheaply in developing nations. This undercuts local farmers and forces many off the land. The Worldwatch Institute states, “In most cases, any benefits of this cheap food to the urban poor are likely to be transitory, as the destablisation of the rural economy encourages migration to job-scarce cities, thereby increasing the ranks of impoverished city dwellers while harming urban agriculture programmes” (23).

Dependence on foreign markets for food also means that the importing countries are vulnerable to price fluctuations and currency devaluations that can increase the price of food substantially (23).

Why are countries in debt?

During the 1970s, developing countries were lent money by developed countries for a range of projects, including infrastructure development (e.g. dams and roads), industrialisation and technology. The World Development Movement (WDM) states, “Often the projects turned out to be unproductive.” The loans were either multilateral (i.e. the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund lending to one government) or bilateral (i.e. one government lending to another) (24).

Then in the 1980s, interest rates rocketed because of the oil crisis, while at the same time, industrialised countries put high prices on many agricultural imports so that developing world farmers were not able to sell their produce (24). Consequently, developing countries were unable to pay off their loans and they have become increasingly indebted. These countries are paying back billions of pounds to the West in interest payments each year.

Often, the loans had conditions attached. When Costa Rica borrowed money from the World Bank, one of the conditions set was that they had to cut down rainforest and clear land for cattle grazing to supply rich countries with cheap beef. The destruction of rainforests is a disaster not just for its people and wildlife but for the world's climate (see Viva! Guide 9, Planet on a Plate).

Between 1975 and 1985, thousands of km2 of forest were cleared in Thailand to grow tapioca to sell to the EU as feed for pigs and cattle. When beef and pork mountains meant that not as much meat was being produced, Europe no longer needed tapioca and stopped buying. This put Thai peasants into huge debt because they had borrowed money to spend on improving their farms to grow enough to meet demand. As a consequence, many people sold their children into child labour and prostitution.