It’s funny. I learned more about ethics and social justice in a biology class than any dozen religious sermons that I can remember.
Most people are surprised to discover — as I did during an undergraduate lecture — that we can take dramatic steps towards feeding the world’s poor, and it has little to do with throwing a few dollars in the collection plate, or saying an extra decade of the rosary.
One of the greatest sins of our generation is that every 3.6 seconds, malnutrition takes a child’s life. The math means that 24,000 children die every day. Eleven million will die before reaching their fifth birthday. More than one billion souls on this planet — our planet — do not have enough to eat.
Vegetarianism is one vital way to restore balance to that tragic metric.
Sadly, as this millennium settles in, we’re not making much headway in the fight against hunger and poverty. When the Cold War ended, we were promised a peace dividend, and the more optimistic among us hoped the money would be used to promote justice throughout the world. It hasn’t happened. High unemployment and its attendant social ills have made people in rich nations increasingly insular, less willing to look across the oceans when many are suffering next door. After all, charity begins at home.
Truth to tell, it will probably get worse before it gets better. Climate change and populations growth aren’t helping. A recent United Nations’ report suggests that food production will have to triple to feed the world’s people in the year 2050.
So what should we do about it? We could let plant geneticists loose, breeding hardy strains of super plants. The world might be better off if tomato vines produced more tomatoes. But few people, even ardent technophiles, believe that we can increase yields by 300 per cent. Besides, serious problems arise from monocultures and tampering with the gene pool.
It would be wise to slow population growth, by encouraging emerging nations to limit procreation. But that road is fraught with peril. Many world religions, Catholicism chief among them, believe any form of birth control is morally reprehensible, and refuse to condone it. So more are born to live in poverty and more will die, suggesting that the Pope might need to reorder his moral principles.
Some developing nations take a provocative view, suggesting that we have no right to rape the world’s resources and then smugly tell them how to live.
No wonder most experts believe that we’ve already lost the population war.
That’s why the best solution may be to change our position on the food chain. You see, animals high on the food chain are incredibly inefficient — it takes more land and natural resources to feed meat eaters. A hundred gazelles can graze on a hectare of land, but those hundred gazelles may only be able to feed one or two lions.
Think of it this way. An acre of land in a warm climate can produce 60,000 pounds of celery each year, or 40,000 pounds of onions. Or it can produce 250 pounds of beef. The corollary is that as people become affluent, they usually move up the food chain, consuming more resources, and meat is one of them.
In the United States, 64 per cent of crop land grows feed for livestock, while a mere two per cent produces food and vegetables for human consumption. Almost 80 per cent of the corn grown stateside and more than 90 per cent of soybeans are eaten by animals that are eaten by us.
Sadly, our wealth and prosperity — our buying power — is making it difficult for developing nations to feed their own. Twenty-five years ago, livestock consumed only six per cent of Mexico’s grain. Today, it’s around 50 per cent. In fact, most developing nations are importing grain to meet their agricultural needs, with a high percentage going to feed livestock, not people. Well-to-do landowners know that they can make good money by selling meat to New and Old World countries, and to the rising middle class in their own backyards.
I’ve learned some of this from John Robbins in a gentle book called May All Be Fed (Morrow). Robbins — for those who don’t know him — was born into an affluent ice-cream family, but couldn’t stomach the inequalities between rich and poor. He renounced his family fortune, and founded Earthsave, an environmental organization devoted to creating a livable world for all.
The truth is that vegetarianism is a blessed gift that humanity can give the less fortunate. Robbins adds perspective with these words: “If Americans were to reduce their consumption of meat by only 10 per cent, it would free land and resources to grow more than 12 million tons of grain annually for human consumption, more than enough to adequately feed every one of the 40-60 million human beings who will starve to death on the planet this year.”
If you’d like to dispute that statistic, go ahead. But you can’t deny the truth the underlies the problem. We need to eat less meat, and that meat has to be farmed sustainably.
Ironically, I first heard about this novel approach to feeding the world’s hungry at Dalhousie University in 1979, just weeks before my father died of heart disease. Unfortunately, studies linking diet and illness were simply too late to save the lives of many in my his generation.
Today, we know that fat intake is closely tied to health problems like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Everyone concerned about health knows that an easy way to cut fat calories is to cut back on meat.
I’m not silly enough to think that cutting back on meat consumption will solve all the world’s problems. But I do believe that it’s an important link in a complex chain. If, as individuals and as a continent, we start eating more sustainably, we will be making the world a more equitable place.
It won’t be easy. And it won’t happen without a first step. Think globally, but act locally. Start eating less meat, perhaps just one meal per week. Buy a good vegetarian cookbook.* Cherish every meal as a family, knowing that many are far less fortunate. Our blessings are blessings, and too many of us have forgotten.
Robbins titled his book after a simple mealtime prayer: May all be fed; may all be healed; may all be loved.
Can I hear an amen?
*Might I recommend a couple of Moosewood cookbooks or How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman. And note that while I link to Amazon, I think that you should buy from a local independent bookstore, if you have one.