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Diet and World Hunger

Worldwide, nearly a billion people suffer from chronic hunger. 24,000 people per day or 8.8 million per year die from starvation and other hunger-related causes. Three-fourths are children under five. Chronic hunger causes stunted growth, poor vision, listlessness, and susceptibility to disease.

Only 10% of hunger deaths are attributed to catastrophic events like famine or war. Most are due to chronic malnutrition caused by gross maldistribution and waste of food resources. Most of the waste is due to non-sustainable agricultural practices, such as depletion of cultivable land, topsoil, water, energy, and minerals, and the conversion of plant to animal protein.

Role of Animal Agriculture

A meat-based diet requires 10-20 times as much land as a plant-based diet. Nearly half of the world's grains and soybeans are fed to animals, resulting in a huge waste of food calories. The extent of waste is such that even a 10% drop in U.S. meat consumption would make sufficient foodstuffs available to feed the world's starving millions.

Moreover, animal agriculture has been devastating the world's agricultural land. The process begins with clear-cutting of forests to create cattle pastures. Eventually, the pastures are plowed under and used to grow animal feedcrops. Depletion of topsoil and minerals begins soon after the trees are cut down and escalates with tilling. Without the plant growth to hold it in place, topsoil, laden with minerals, fertilizer, and organic debris, is carried by the runoff of rain and melting snow into nearby streams. The insatiable demand for animal feed crops leads to the use of sloping land with greater runoff and arid land requiring irrigation. Irrigation accounts for more than 80% of all water available for human use, leading to widespread water shortages.

Future Outlook

Western agribusiness interests, faced with saturated markets and increasingly stringent environmental regulations at home, seek to export factory farming practices and to expand the demand for their products in developing countries.

This would bring a number of disastrous consequences. It would exacerbate the mal-distribution and waste of food resources. The resulting drawdown of grain supplies would precipitate major famines. The public health impacts would impose an intolerable economic burden. The impacts on soil, water, and wildlife would threaten fragile ecosystems.

Sustainable cultivation of plant foods favored by developing countries offers a safe, nutritious, and affordable solution to hunger and malnutrition. Vegetables, legumes, grains, and fruits can be grown in most climates and on small plots of land. Such crops require minimal investment in equipment, fertilizers, pesticides, water, and energy, and they cause negligible soil degradation and water pollution.

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Harvard nutritionist
Jean Mayer estimates that reducing meat production by just 10 percent in the U.S. would free enough
grain to feed
60 million people.

An acre of prime land can produce 40,000 pounds of potatoes, 30,000 pounds of carrots, 50,000 pounds of tomatoes but only 250 pounds of beef.

To produce one pound of meat, it takes an average of 2,500 gallons of water -- as much as the amount of water used by a typical family for all household purposes in a month.