Scarcity vs. Distribution

Synopsis

Meat is a form of overconsumption and redistribution that increases scarcity.

You may have heard it before... that there's plenty of food, the problem is distribution not scarcity.

Both scarcity and distribution are real issues... and they are interconnected.

First, increasing population and dwindling resources make food scarcity a current problem and a crisis in the making.

Second, distribution in terms of governments and other institutions not providing enough food to those in need is a heart-breaking reality that is connected with issues of scarcity.

Question: Isn't there more than enough to feed everyone?

Answer: Theoretically we can feed nine billion people, but not when vast amounts of food are fed to animals to produce meat and other animal-based foods.

Animals are extremely inefficient converters of food... that is, they eat much more food than they produce. Animal-based foods (such as meat, dairy, and eggs) are highly resource-intensive and require much more food, land, water and energy than eating plant-based foods directly.

A majority of the "extra" food is redistributed away from those who need it most and used as animal feed to produce meat for those who can afford it most.

As such, animal-based foods are a form of overconsumption and redistribution that reduces the amount of available food and increases the price of basic food staples.

In short, those with financial resources outbid the poor and increase hunger.


Scarcity - Finally Accepted

Global hunger results from a web of immensely complex factors, including BOTH food scarcity and distribution. Thinking that hunger is mostly a problem of distribution is dangerous in that it leads people to dismiss the issue of scarcity and results in practices that are inappropriate and harmful.

Food scarcity at the global level is an issue now with past surpluses being drawn down and it is fast becoming a critical issue as our 7+ billion population expands towards 9 billion by 2050.

As our population increases, available land, water, energy and other finite resources decrease. So we have more people to feed and fewer resources to feed them.

Scarcity is further exacerbated by our appetite for resource-intensive animal-based foods.

Animals-based foods, include but are not limited to all types of animal flesh (cows, pigs, goats, sheep, birds, and aquatic animals). Animal-based foods also include products that are produced from animals, most notably their reproductive products such as dairy and eggs.


Meat as Overconsumption & Redistribution

Animals used for food (livestock) are highly inefficient converters of food, energy, and natural resources. In short, livestock consume much more than they produce.

Eating 1,000 calories of meat can easily use more than 7,000 calories in plant-based foods, plus the associated use of natural resources.

By using more than their “fair share,” animal-based foods are a form of redistribution that exacerbate food scarcity, especially in low-income countries. (See supply-and-demand below)

There are obvious differences in the amount of food consumed in low-, middle- and high-income countries, but the quantity in terms of calories consumed is less important than the type of food. When the "true caloric' values are calculated that include the use of animal feed, the disparities are shockingly large.


Exporting Food as Redistribution

During the mid-1980’s famine, Ethiopia was a net exporter of food. The government and businesses exported food to be used as feed to produce meat and other animal-based foods for wealthier countries and individuals. 

Those with greater financial resources bid food away from those who have less because they’re able to pay higher prices. It’s hard to believe but exporting large quantities of food is a common practice that continues today in Ethiopia, Kenya and other countries with large populations of hungry, malnourished, and food-insecure people.


Basic Supply-and-Demand

Agricultural supply-and-demand is a complicated process with many political and other variables, but this is the basic concept which holds true under many scenarios:

As the supply of food tightens, decreasing supply relative to demand... prices increase and fewer people can afford the basic food staples needed for survival.

When food is exported from a poor region... their local supply of food decreases, which can lead to higher food prices... and more deaths from hunger and hunger-related causes.

On a global scale, when staple foods (grains, soy, corn, etc) are used as animal feed to produce resource-intensive animal-based foods, the global food supply is lower relative to demand and food prices are higher than many can afford.

There are many other factors involved, but that is the basic concept. The biofuels example illustrates it best.


Biofuels, Meat and the Food Crisis

The most prominent example of food supply-and-demand is the way in which biofuels increased demand for food staples, thus increasing the price of food and contributing to a global food crisis.

Food-intensive biofuels were demonized as a top contributor to the mid-2000’s food crisis, but there was no mention of the impact of food-intensive meat, dairy and egg consumption.

Reducing the global consumption of animal products would have an immensely greater impact on the supply and availability of food relative to reducing, even eliminating, biofuels.

While food supplies can be tightened and relaxed by agribusiness and policymakers, in the long run food is a limited resource. Reducing consumption of animal-based foods would take pressure off our limited food and environmental resources. It would decrease demand relative to supply, allowing for a downward pressure on food prices to fall.

Unfortunately, animal-based food consumption is on the rise at an unprecedented rate (expected to double between 2000-2050). This "Livestock Revolution" is creating wider disparities and higher death tolls.


The Livestock “Revolution” Increasing Demand

The UN warns that global meat consumption will double between 2000-2050.

We're more than 10 years in and this prediction is on track. We've increased 20% from 50 billion land animals dying for food production to 60 billion. Left unchecked it will continue its dramatic rise.

The “increases” are stemming primarily from the lower- and middle-income countries even though their per capita consumption is still far less than the U.S., Europe and other industrialized and high-consuming countries.

This trend, known as the “Livestock Revolution,” consists of:

  • a large starting population base of about four billion people in developing countries
  • relatively high birth rates that further multiply population in those regions
  • drastic increases in the consumption of meat, dairy, and other animal products

Meeting the increased demand for food due to population increases is a concern in itself, but the impact of the increasing consumption of resource-intensive animal-based foods compounds the problem. 


Scarcity and Meat Consumption

While many experts recognize the impending food scarcity and environmental devastation caused by the increasing consumption of animal-based foods, most stop short of seeking a reduction.

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute in their Livestock to 2020 report:

Quote:

“The demand-driven Livestock Revolution is one of the largest structural shifts to ever affect food markets in developing countries and how it is handled is crucial for future growth prospects in developing country agriculture, for food security and the livelihoods of the rural poor, and for environmental sustainability"

Unfortunately, instead of calling for policies to reduce meat consumption and reverse the trend, they assert that meat consumption is demand-driven, and that we should focus on how to best meet the increasing demand. They continue:

Quote:

"[I]t is unwise to think that the Livestock Revolution will somehow go away in response to moral suasion by well-meaning development partners. It is a structural phenomenon that is here to stay. How bad or how good it will be for the populations of developing countries is intricately bound up with how countries choose to approach the Livestock Revolution."

To meet increased global food and meat demand, think tanks such as IFPRI promote population planning/control (to reduce demand) and biotechnology (to increase yield/supply).  Conveniently, they do not promote dietary change of (over)consumers or up-and-coming high-consumers. The claim that increasing per-capita consumption is demand-driven as if it is a fixed, non-elastic "given."


AWFW's Goal

These are some of the assumptions and rationale that A Well-Fed World seeks to correct.

While meat consumption may be demand-driven in an economic sense, the demand for meat and other animal products is socially-constructed and can be redirected with targeted policies, subsidies, and education campaigns.

We advocate a move in this direction. We advocate minimizing the consumption of meat and other animal products, especially in high-consuming countries and reversing increased consumption trends in developing countries before they become more entrenched.

Reducing consumption of animal-based foods is not a panacea, but it must be part of the solution. It is a necessary and commonsense component of any effective reform and sustainable food system.


Recommended Reading

Humane Society International's 2011 report on the impact of industrial farm animal production on food security in the developing world.