Rifkin Slams Overproduction of
Meat as Cause of World Hunger

Published on Friday, May 17, 2002 in the Guardian of London

The World's Problems on a Plate
Meat Production is Making the Rich Ill and the Poor Hungry

by Jeremy Rifkin

In June, agricultural ministers from around the world will gather in Rome
for the World Food Summit. The meeting will focus on how to create a
sustainable approach to development and get food in the mouths of the nearly
1 billion who are currently undernourished. More interesting than the
agenda, however, will be the menu. At both the official dinners and at NGO
gatherings, expect to see the consumption of large quantities of meat. And
herein lies the contradiction.

Hundreds of millions of people are going hungry all over the world because
much of the arable land is being used to grow feed grain for animals rather
than for people. Cattle are among the most inefficient converters of feed.
In the US, 157 million metric tons of cereal, legumes and vegetable protein
suitable for human use is fed to livestock to produce 28 million metric tons
of animal protein for annual human consumption.

The worldwide demand for feed grain continues to grow, as multinational
corporations seek to capitalize on the meat demands of affluent countries.
Two-thirds of the increases in grain production in the US and Europe between
1950 and 1985, the boom years in agriculture, went to provide feed grain.

In developing countries, the question of land reform has periodically
rallied peasant populations and spawned populist political uprisings. But
the question of how the land is used has been of less interest. Yet the
decision to use the land to create an artificial food chain has resulted in
misery for hundreds of millions around the world. An acre of cereal produces
five times more protein than an acre devoted to meat production; legumes
(beans, peas, lentils) can produce 10 times more protein and leafy
vegetables 15 times more.

The global corporations that produce the seeds, the farm chemicals and the
cattle and that control the slaughterhouse and the marketing and
distribution channels for beef are eager to tout the advantage of grain-fed
livestock. Advertising and sales campaigns geared to developing nations are
quick to equate grain-fed beef with a country's prestige. Climbing the
"protein ladder" becomes the mark of success.

Enlarging and diversifying their meat supply appears to be a first step for
every developing country. They start by putting in modern broiler and egg
production facilities - the fastest and cheapest way to produce nonplant
protein. Then, as rapidly as their economies permit, they climb "the protein
ladder" to pork, milk, and dairy products, to grass-fed beef and finally, if
they can, to grain-fed beef.

Encouraging other nations to do this advances the interests of American
farmers and agribusiness companies. Two-thirds of all the grain exported
from the US to other countries goes to feed livestock rather than to feed
hungry people.

Many developing nations climbed the protein ladder at the height of the
agricultural boom, when "green revolution" technology was producing grain
surpluses. In 1971 the Food and Agricultural Organization suggested
switching to coarse grains that could be more easily consumed by livestock.
The US government provided further encouragement in its foreign aid program,
tying food aid to development of feed grain markets. Companies like Ralston
Purina and Cargill were given low-interest government loans to establish
grain-fed poultry operations in developing countries. Many nations followed
the advice of the FAO and have attempted to remain high on the protein
ladder long after the surpluses of the green revolution have disappeared.

The shift from food to feed continues apace in many nations, with no sign of
reversal. The human consequences of the transition were dramatically
illustrated in 1984 in Ethiopia when thousands of people were dying each day
from famine. At the very same time Ethiopia was using some of its
agricultural land to produce linseed cake, cottonseed cake and rapeseed meal
for export to the UK and other European nations as feed for livestock.
Millions of acres of third world land are now being used exclusively to
produce feed for European livestock.

Tragically, some 80% of the world's hungry children live in countries with
actual food surpluses, much of which is in the form of feed fed to animals
which will be consumed by only the well-to-do consumers. In the developing
world, the share of grain fed to livestock has tripled since 1950 and now
exceeds 21% of the total grain produced.

The irony of the present system is that millions of wealthy consumers in the
first world are dying from diseases of affluence (heart attacks, strokes,
diabetes, cancer) brought on by gorging on fatty grain-fed meats, while the
poor in the third world are dying of diseases of poverty brought on by the
denial of access to land to grow food grain for their families. We are long
overdue for a global discussion on how best to promote a diversified,
high-protein, vegetarian diet for the human race.

Jeremy Rifkin is the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in
Washington DC


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