All Commentary
Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Are Meat Eaters Starving the Poor?

Bad Policy Is the Real Source of Global Hunger

Jeremy Rifkin, America’s ever-present guilt-monger, says hundreds of millions of people are going hungry because the world’s grain crops are being fed to livestock instead of people. Rifkin, writing in the May 27 Los Angeles Times, says eating grain-fed meat is “a new form of human evil.” He blames wealthy consumers for “eating at the highest point on the food chain while their fellow human beings starve.”

As usual, Rifkin is headed in the wrong direction.

He says, “In the past half a century, we have erected an artificial, worldwide protein ladder, with grain-fed beef and other meats on the top rung.”

Shame on Rifkin’s history teacher.

There has never been a voluntarily vegetarian society in all history. Our Stone Age ancestors stole wild birds’ eggs, gathered clams, and hunted any creature they could club, trap, or spear-to get the vital amino acids and micronutrients that humans need and can’t get from plants. Mammoth bones in Wisconsin show not only spear damage–but that the hunters also scavenged meat from long-dead carcasses.

“It’s easy to tell from the skeletons of our ancestors whether they were agriculturists or hunter-gatherers,” says Arthur De Vany of California State University, an expert on Stone Age diets. “The agriculturists have bad teeth, bone lesions, small and underdeveloped skeletons and small craniums, compared to the hunter-gatherers.”

Rifkin’s solution is to force vegetarian diets onto the people of the affluent countries. This would push the world’s successful societies toward worse health, without noticeably helping the poor ones. A New York couple was recently arrested for child abuse, because the vegan diet they imposed on their baby had stunted her growth to half the normal size for her 16 months.

The problem for early man was that there weren’t enough wild animals to feed many people. The Clovis hunters who came to America about 13,000 years ago hunted dozens of mammal species to extinction, including our native mammoths, horses, camels, and ground sloths.

Ten thousand years ago, humans invented farming to get more food per acre, more reliably, than pursuing wandering herds of elk. But farming shifted the human diet from about 65 percent livestock calories and 35 percent plant calories to 65 percent plants and only 35 percent livestock.

Only in the last 200 years has high-yield farming allowed us to have ample calories to satisfy our kids’ hunger (including plenty of livestock calories that optimize growth and cognitive learning) without destroying all the wildlife habitat on the planet.

In fact, the world’s farmers are currently feeding twice as many people as we fed in 1950, and giving them much more nutritious diets, from virtually the same cropland base. Modern plant breeding, industrial fertilizers, irrigation, and integrated pest management have tripled the yields.

The Third World has invested far less in agricultural research, and thus has had to clear some tropical forest for additional crops. The tropical countries are also hunting their wild animals to near-extinction for “bushmeat.” Hunters in the Congo, for example, are cheerfully selling monkey brains and gorilla steaks.

Meat Production Up

Rifkin is right that world meat production has risen fivefold since 1970–but most of the increase has been in the “poor” countries. China’s meat consumption, for example, doubled in the 1990s because China’s family incomes have soared. Even in “vegetarian” India, three-fourths of the Hindus say they will eat meat (but not beef) when they can afford it.

Modern crop yields are not only the highest in history, but also the most sustainable. Modern farmers have conservation tillage, which eliminates “bare-earth” farming techniques like plowing. It cuts soil erosion by up to 90 percent, often with higher yields because it can double the soil moisture available to the crop plants. (Rifkin is against conservation tillage, because it uses herbicides for weed control.)

Recently, the University of California, Berkeley, engineered biotech plants that not only grow in salty soils, but remove much of the salt–and store it in their leaves. Thus we can harvest the crop, and then harvest the salt for industrial use. This makes the 40 percent of world food production grown on irrigated land fully sustainable for the first time. (Rifkin is also against genetically engineered crops.)

Rifkin hates the corporations that support high-yield agriculture. But if corporations didn’t take 80 million tons of natural nitrogen from the air each year to fertilize crops, we’d need the organic N from 9 billion cattle instead of the 1.2 billion the world has now. Growing feed for that massive number of cattle might force us to plow down another 30 to 50 billion acres of wildlands.

If corporations didn’t make pesticides, we’d lose half of our crop production to pests and have to clear billions more acres of wildlands for cropland.

Farmers grow the feed corn that Rifkin hates for three reasons: (1) the world’s natural grasslands are limited and mostly too arid to produce high yields; (2) with high yields, we can grow the “people food” on less land, leaving good grain land available for feed; (3) corn frequently yields 180 bushels per acre, compared with the ten bushels of wheat per acre produced on my Shenandoah Valley farm in 1830. We could grow high yields of alfalfa instead, but alfalfa is harder to store and transport–and not as good for adding pounds to chickens and hogs.

Rifkin should take heart, however. Modern selective breeding has produced animals with much higher feed efficiencies. We also keep many of them indoors, where they’re not bothered by heat and cold. And the creatures eat lots of grass and byproducts humans can’t eat. Thus, in 1997, livestock consumed 74 million tons of human-edible protein and produced 54 million tons of human-food protein–a ratio of 1.4 to 1. As it happens, the human nutrition value of animal protein is 1.4 times as high as plant protein. That makes it unlikely the world could get more human nutrition if it gave up the animal products Rifkin wants us to renounce.

He is certainly correct, however, that we should not allow the world’s current food situation to persist. Most of the world’s poorly fed people are hungry because we haven’t yet extended high-yield farming and high-paying off-farm jobs to the whole globe. Africa, in particular, is a building catastrophe for the next two decades, primarily because of its own horrible governance. Nor is the Islamic world doing much better.

Some 800 million people are not getting adequate nutrition consistently. And if we don’t triple the yields again, the affluent people will be pitted against the poor and the wildlife. We need more agricultural research to raise the yields and incomes of poor farmers in Madagascar–as well as more exportable grain from Iowa. (Densely populated Asian countries will need to import some of their diet upgrading as they get richer.)

That means we also need to liberate farm trade. The average tariff on nonfarm products is 4 percent, but in farm products it’s 65 percent. The rich countries should import their sugar, and tropical countries can’t grow high-yield wheat.

Rifkin says meat is making us too fat. How come he’s not crusading against Coca-Cola, Scotch whiskey, and Twinkies?

Dennis Avery is a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute of Indianapolis and the director of the Center for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior policy analyst for the U.S. Department of State. Readers may write him at P.O. Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.