Factory farming practices are severe and cruel and that has been enough to convince millions to make the transition to veganism. But beyond the incalculable pain and suffering, there are more reasons to oppose the ruthless imprisonment and annual slaughter of 56 billion animals, which is the price we pay for normalizing a diet that treats living creatures as disposable commodities.
Among those who waste resources while abusing animals, the Earth and fellow human beings – the factory farming industry stands out from the crowd. The negative impact of industrial-scale animal agriculture is immense, multi-layered and projected to get worse in the coming years, and more hunger and more poverty will be among the tragic results—unless people of good conscience everywhere are finally prepared to choose the vegan alternative.
"My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt"
Animal Agriculture and Our World Calorie Deficit
When we raise cattle, chickens, pigs, lambs and other animals on factory farms, we turn them into calorie sinkholes.
Throughout their lives they are fed enormous quantities of grain, soy, corn and even their own byproducts, in order to fatten them up or to encourage more production of milk and eggs. Once all those plant-based calories have been consumed by farm animals they are gone for good, permanently removed from potential use as food by humans.
Only a small percentage of the calories consumed by farm animals over the course of their brief and tragic lifetimes will make it into human diets. How small a percentage, you ask?
For every 100 calories fed to a farm animal, the number of calories that will be passed on to human consumers are as follows:
- Dairy cows, 29
- Poultry, 17
- Pigs, 9
- Laying hens, 4
- Beef cattle, 3
The percentages for all meat products in particular are astoundingly low and represent a stunning indictment of the wastefulness inherent in the use of animal products as a source of calories for people.
If we switch from raw calories numbers to protein, those vital building blocks for life, the ratios don’t get any better. For every 100 calories of protein consumed by each type of farm animal, the number of protein calories returned to the human diet are:
- Laying hens, 31
- Poultry, 21
- Dairy cows, 14
- Pigs, 9
- Beef cattle, 3
Overall, only 55 percent of the planet’s crop calories are eaten directly by people, while 36 percent are diverted to feed farm animals (the remaining nine percent are used in biofuel production and for other industrial processes).
On a worldwide basis, there are approximately 815 million people who suffer from significant hunger or malnutrition, and maybe a billion more who could quickly slip into that status if circumstances turned against them. Animal agriculture helps increase global food insecurity by eliminating more than a third of the potentially available calories, and with meat consumption rising across the globe the problem could get significantly worse—if this trend is allowed to continue.
Is Poverty the Real Problem?
While acknowledging the inefficiency and the wastefulness of animal agriculture, some claim this isn’t the real problem. Instead, they point to the stark economic disparities that plague the world economy, which prevent fair food distribution by making sufficient calories unaffordable for many people.
There is clearly some truth in this observation. Across the planet, more than three billion people are struggling to survive on incomes of less than $2.50 per day (in U.S. dollars), and among this group 1.3 billion are trying to get by on half that total (or less). The poorest 40 percent of the global population receives just 5 percent of the world’s income, and food insecurity is an undeniable side effect of this grave injustice.
But economic disparities don’t make the inefficiency and wastefulness of animal agriculture irrelevant. In fact, that waste is becoming more relevant every day, since the world could be facing massive food shortages in the very near future, caused by the combination of rapid population growth and accelerating soil degradation.
A Closer Look at the Coming Food Crisis
Sometime in the next 30-35 years, the global population is expected to surpass nine billion. Consequently, world food production will need to increase by at least 25 percent (and possibly much more) by the year 2050 to meet the nutritional needs of every person on the planet, regardless of the existing pattern of income and wealth distribution.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the world’s farmland is already in use and producing crops at an impressive clip, so the increases won’t come from putting more land into production.
And it isn’t likely to come from increased exploitation of existing farmland, either.
According to Maria-Helena Semedo, the deputy director general of natural resources for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than one-third of the planet’s topsoil has already been degraded to the point of sterility, primarily through intensive use of chemical fertilizers, overirrigation, lack of crop diversity and erosion related to climate change and deforestation. If current rates of degradation continue, Ms. Semedo says, all the world’s topsoil may be gone in as little as 60 years.
This extreme result may or may not take place, depending on what actions are taken to ameliorate the problem. But with more intensive exploitation of soil out of the question, and with the safety of higher-yielding GNO crops remaining in question, it seems clear the best hope for boosting available food resources lies with a move from animal-centered diets to veganism.
Theoretically, a conversion to veganism could increase the percentage of growing land used to produce crops for people from 55 percent to 91 percent, which would boost the number of plant calories available to feed a burgeoning human population by nearly two-thirds. There would still be work to do on the economic side, to make sure everyone could afford what they need, but at least the food would be available in enough abundance to meet the needs of more than nine billion humans.
The Connection between Animal Agriculture and Poverty
It can be argued whether poverty or animal agriculture contributes more to world hunger, and about which will be the biggest contributor to hunger in the future.
But it would be a mistake to see poverty and animal farming as two separate factors in the equation, because they are not. Industrial-scale animal farming reinforces poverty, and in some instances it actually creates more of it.
Here are just some of the negative economic consequences of an animal-centered diet:
People starve while animals get fattened
Every day forty thousand children die in the world for lack of food. We who overeat in the West, who are feeding grains to animals to make meat, are eating the flesh of these children." - Thich Nhat Hanh
Over 20 million people will die this year as a result of malnutrition and approximately one billion people, mostly rural women and children, suffer chronic hunger. A lot of food that is currently fed to animals could instead be used to feed the world's hungry people directly. To produce just one kilogram of beef protein, it takes at least seven kilograms of grain and other plant protein to be fed to a cow. If crops grown for livestock production were instead used for human consumption, over 10 times more people could be fed. Eighty percent of starving children live in countries that actually have food surpluses - the children remain hungry because farmers use the surplus grain to feed animals instead of people. To make the situation worse, sometimes developing nations grow animals to sell to wealthier nations because this is more profitable than growing fruits, vegetables and grains that could feed local people. References: Feast or Famine: Meat Production and World Hunger by Mark Hawthorne, Immoral maize: how meat-heavy diets are pricing sub-Saharan Africa out of nutrition, Global hunger: The more meat we eat, the fewer people we can feed.
Dr Richard Oppenlander illustrates the issue perfectly. "More than 40 percent of Ethiopians are considered hungry or starving, and fresh water there is scarce. Yet they have 50 million cattle (one of the largest herds in the world), as well as 50 million sheep and goats and 35 million chickens, needlessly consuming their food, land, and water. Ethiopia is cutting down 25,000 acres of its forests each year in order to make more room for their growing herd of livestock, while contributing heavily to greenhouse gas emissions along the way. The country of Eritrea has a human population of 5 million people, the majority of whom suffer from hunger and poverty. Yet they are using their sparse resources to support 6 million cattle, sheep, and goats.
Eighty-two percent of the world’s starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals, which are then killed and eaten by wealthier individuals in developed countries like the US, UK, and in Europe. One fourth of all grain produced by third-world countries is now given to livestock, in their own countries and elsewhere. Therefore, on a local basis, animal-based agriculture simply perpetuates hunger, poverty, and other components of the cycle such as illiteracy (as high as 66 percent in some countries) and poor human health."
Higher food costs
A diet composed exclusively of grains, fruits and vegetables is less costly than a diet that includes animal proteins. This is according to a 2015 study from the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, which found that a person switching from an animal-based to a plant-based diet could save up to $750 a year on food costs.
This number is impressive, but it could be even higher for those who purchase their food exclusively from local organic suppliers. Supermarkets mostly stock food that has been shipped in from far-off locations, and customers are charged higher prices for these items to cover the costs of transportation.
Poor health and higher healthcare costs
Meat-based diets are associated with a higher risk for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, severe food poisoning and chronic digestion problems. A 2013 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that people who follow plant-based diets have a longer average lifespan than those who eat meat, by six years for women and 10 years for men.
Healthcare is a large expense for many people, and those who struggle with chronic diseases often run up huge debts that can overwhelm their ability to pay. Health problems caused by meat consumption can also make it impossible for people to work, putting them in dire financial straits.
Inequality in land ownership
On a worldwide basis, inequality in land ownership is one of the primary reasons why there is such a massive gap between rich and poor. This inequality helps explain the persistence of poverty in rural areas, and it boosts poverty in urban areas by forcing people to flee the countryside for the city in a futile effort to find work.
Land monopolies are a significant driver of poverty, and among wealthy landowners cattle barons are very well represented. Many of these individuals own cattle ranches that spread out over tens of thousands of hectares, which leaves little room for the type of small farmer that fed the world for centuries. Those small farmers now occupy just 25 percent of the world’s agricultural land, as corporations, wealthy family dynasties, foreign investors and hungry nation-states divvy up the rest between themselves.
Livestock roam over 30 percent of the Earth’s total surface area, while more than one-third of its arable land is dedicated to growing feed for farm animals. Most of this land is locked into large estates and unavailable to the masses, and what little land is left is overpriced because of its scarcity.
The proliferation of low-wage employment
Few business categories produce as many dangerous low-paying jobs as agribusiness, and jobs that involve the factory farming of animals are especially brutal and unpleasant.
On factory farms workers perform a variety of grueling physical tasks for significantly less than a living wage, while being exposed to harmful fumes and gases that can cause respiratory problems and possibly cancer if exposure continues for long enough. The physical stress of their jobs combined with the emotional stress of the cruelty that surrounds them puts these workers at risk for cardiovascular troubles, anxiety disorders, depression and other physical and mental health conditions that diminish the quality of their lives.
And needless to say, the stress is even worse for people who are forced by economic circumstances to take jobs in slaughterhouses. Sub-standard pay for the most nightmarish work imaginable awaits those who enter the hellish darkness of the slaughterhouse, and workplace accidents that can lead to long-term unemployment are common in these ruthless and degrading environments.
Shortages of fresh, clean water
Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all the freshwater consumed on the planet, and a significant portion of it is diverted to meat and dairy production and processing.
Most of this water is not used to hydrate animals, but to clean up the tons of filth produced on factory farms, and that water ends up badly contaminated with fecal matter, hormones, antibiotics, disease-causing bacteria, heavy metals, nitrogen, pesticides, ammonia and other harmful substances that can contaminate above- or below-ground waterways and water supplies.
Irrigation of cropland is another large source of freshwater consumption in agriculture, and much of that water is used on fields that produce soybeans, grain and corn for farm animals.
The bottom line is that global freshwater supplies are being depleted or polluted by factory farms at alarming rates, and as potable water grows increasingly rare in the years to come costs will soar and people with limited financial resources will be left without options.
Climate change and global warming
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of all global warming/greenhouse gas emissions. Not surprisingly, resource-intensive animal agriculture is disproportionately to blame for these contributions, and cattle ranching is the worst culprit.
The world’s 1.5 billion cows and bulls release the equivalent of two billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (primarily in the form of methane) annually. Meanwhile, the clearing of tropical forests and rainforests to create new grazing land for cattle allows another 2.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to enter the atmosphere each year.
As global warming and climate change accelerate, the impact on the poor will be profound. A 2015 study by the Institute for Environmental and Human Security of the United Nations University predicts that at least 200 million people will be displaced from their lands and homes by 2050 (other studies put the number much higher), from the combined effects drought, famine, water depletion, natural disasters, deforestation, wars fought over natural resources, and other severe problems related to the coming environmental collapse.
Toward a Sustainable, Organic Vegan Future
While veganism could help reduce hunger and poverty and give us a chance at a more sustainable future, it will only have those effects if the grains, fruits, vegetables and other plant-based food products consumed by vegans come from locally-based organic farms and gardens. We must oppose industrial agriculture and agribusiness at every turn, knowing that they would continue to exploit human beings and despoil the land even if we eliminated all animal products from everyone’s diets immediately.
Poverty and hunger are not a consequence of natural law or unavoidable shortages. They are the tragic result of wasteful choices and practices, and each is preventable if we learn to change our thinking and behavior and finally begin to hold our institutions accountable for their actions.
Going vegan definitely sends a message, and if enough people make that move it could eventually launch a revolution. Veganism is positive, life-affirming choice, and it is our ability to make more humane and intelligent choices that gives us hope for tomorrow.
Until we are willing and able to make the connections between what we are eating and what was required to get it on our plate, and how it affects us to buy, serve, and eat it, we will be unable to make the connections that will allow us to live wisely and harmoniously on this earth. When we cannot make connections, we cannot understand, and we are less free, less intelligent, less loving, and less happy."
- Dr Will Tuttle