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Meat, Money and Malnutrition

A Vegan society claims that meat is a cause of famine. So could vegetarianism really help feed the world, or is it all more complicated?

The Bristol-based charity Viva! in a recent pamphlet Join Viva! Join the Fight for Life claim that “millions of children in the developing world die from hunger alongside fields of high quality food, destined for the West’s farmed animals. The startling truth is that meat causes starvation.” Despite claiming that they monitor “the latest research from all over the world in the environment and development issues and argues for change with hard science” Viva provide absolutely no supporting evidence for their contention. Furthermore, a request for such material has yet to be answered.

Viva’s position is accepted as a common truth by other campaigning groups and individuals including Animal Aid, George Monbiot, Peter Singer, and repeated in some sections of the press, such as the Guardian and New Internationalist. While there is no doubt that growing crops as a source of food for the production of meat rather than feeding humans directly is less efficient in terms of land and energy, is there a direct relationship between meat and starvation? Consider a field of corn standing next to a group of starving children. The corn is destined for export as animal feed. Hence meat causes starvation. But if the corn was not grown for use as animal feed would the children be free to eat it? Indeed, would it even be grown in the first place? Simply because two effects (corn, starving children) are found side by side does not imply that one caused the other. Perhaps, however, the supporters of this position consider we have reached the limit of agriculture on this planet and therefore because some people eat meat fed on grain others, as a direct result of this practice, starve.

Over twenty years ago WHO stated that the technology existed to feed a global population twelve times its (then) size. The American Association for the Advancement of Science reported in 1997 that 78 percent of all malnourished children under the age of five in the developing world live in countries with a food surplus. Just over five years ago the United Nations reported that Africa could easily feed a population five times its current size if western technology were introduced. (And what of future technology?)

There is, in fact, a wealth of evidence to support the view that “famine exists largely because the hungry cannot afford to buy food, not because there is insufficient food produced” (New Scientist, 3 September 1994). Agricultural economist M. S. Swaminathan stated earlier this year that the “problem of undernutrition . . . is a lack of purchasing power” (Newsweek, 31 January). Even an establishment figure such as Sir Jonathan Porritt in his introduction to Compassion in World Farming’s report entitled The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat (2004) is not blind to such facts. He quotes approvingly from Colin Tudge’s recent book, So Shall We Reap, and states that the author “develops an eloquent argument demonstrating that contemporary food and farming policy has very little to do with meeting human needs, guaranteeing food security, providing high and consistent levels of nutrition and food safety...Much more simply, it’s all about profit: squeezing the maximum financial yield out of every link in the food chain to benefit a tiny number of an already inconceivably rich minority of citizens” .

And those inconceivably rich do not just live in the West as Porritt states. For example, at the peak of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia such people enjoyed the benefits of exporting crops to the UK and taking delivery of Scottish malt whisky. This was just business as usual. Thus it should come as no surprise to learn that although the value of food exported by Ethiopia and other countries in the Horn of Africa during 1983 exceeded imports by $1 billion, hunger in this region increased (World Hunger: Twelve Myths. Frances Moore Lappe et al, Earthscan, 1998).
For some – but certainly not the 840 million malnourished (or the more than a billion existing in a state described by the UN as absolute poverty) – the ‘problem’ is an inconceivable embarrass de richesses. Try and imagine yourself as one of the 225 individuals owning wealth equivalent to that of 47 percent of the world’s population. Consider that the wealth of just three of these individuals exceeds the Gross National Product of the world’s 47 poorest nations. And that for four percent of the combined income of the three wealthiest people we could provide universal access to basic education, health care, adequate food as well as safe water and sanitation for all.
OK, so is it perhaps not meat on its own that causes starvation, but that it is one of a number of possible factors including problems relating to distribution, drought and natural disaster as well as war and poverty caused by unfair trade, third world debt, insufficient aid, etc? Well, the US recently was able within a few months to send 130,000 people (with supplies) half way across the world. Alas, their mission was one of death and destruction rather than to rescue, provide food, shelter and deliver other essentials to the suffering multitudes. War and poverty even after hundreds of years of social activism are still, patently, with us. But why? Oscar Wilde, writing over a hundred years ago about charity, provides some clues. “[T]heir remedies do not cure the disease; they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible” (The Soul of Man under Socialism).

It is to be hoped that historians living today will in the not distant future look at present day society and recognize that by failing to see starvation as one of many symptomatic problems that no amount of ‘band aids’ could cure, Viva and other well intentioned but misguided groups delayed the use of effective treatment. The activities of such groups will however probably be seen as benign in comparison with the likes of the Animal Liberation Front and PETA – who have more in common with companies such as Monsanto than either would like to admit – and other Malthusian-inspired misanthropes. All will be on record as failing to see the economic law which transcends government and companies however large or powerful: no profit, no production: can’t pay can’t have.

These future historians will indeed be deeply saddened that we took so long to see the link between this law and a myriad of contradictions (clues) in plain view today: people starving while food rots; brick mountains and empty homes existing alongside unemployed builders and the homeless; millions dying of curable diseases. On this last point, pharmaceutical chemist Dr Victoria Hale has made the telling observation that  “parasites and poverty are inextricably linked”. Referring to conditions such as leishmaniasis and Chagas disease, found almost exclusively in areas of the world where grinding poverty for the vast majority is the normal way of life (and death), she went on to say: “People with these diseases are not in sight as they cannot pay” (New Scientist, 25 September 2004).

Revealingly, Tudge is on record as proposing that if food production were designed to feed people rather than make a profit, then there would be no problem. Eureka! Imagine that: a world in which everything is produced for need, not profit! However, in asking “why we, humanity, allow the world to be run by people who have long since lost the plot?” (New Scientist, 13 March 2004) Tudge implies a change in leadership might suffice. But, two hundred years earlier, the Marquis De Sade saw through leadership and in doing so glimpsed the answer to securing “a saner sustainable future”: “You can only govern men by deceiving them; one must be hypocritical to deceive them; the enlightened man will never let himself be led, therefore it is necessary to deprive him of enlightenment to lead him as we want”.