This page examines the food “scarcity vs distribution” debate with particular focus on the benefits of plant-rich diets.
OverviewIs There Food Scarcity?Population Growth / Supply-and-DemandBiofuels, Meat, and the Food CrisisThe 'Livestock Revolution'Our Goal
Global hunger and food insecurity are frequently oversimplified as being primarily a problem of scarcity (not enough food) or a problem of distribution (not enough access to food). More accurately, hunger and food insecurity result from a web of immensely complex and interconnected factors, including both food supply and distribution issues.
While problems of food distribution relating to poor storage, transportation, and policies are obvious, distribution is also significantly impacted by supply-and-demand considerations such that separating supply/scarcity and distribution creates a false dichotomy.
Researchers, advocates, policymakers, and others often focus on a particular issue that is understandably narrow in scope. However, it’s critical that other meaningful aspects are not negated in the process.
Treating hunger solely as a problem of distribution can result in harmful strategies and practices that undermine crucial long-term solutions. Similarly, addressing only food supply (or lack there of: scarcity) is also only a partial piece of the equation.
As it pertains to A Well-Fed World’s mission, we highlight the ways in which shifts towards plant-based foods increase the available food supply — and how this shift improves distribution, access, equity, and sustainability.
While a shift towards plant-based foods is not in itself a solution to global hunger and food insecurity, there are immense and myriad benefits that make it a necessary and critical component of meaningful solutions.
Is There Food Scarcity?
On paper, the world has enough calories to feed 10+ billion people (global population reached 8 billion in June 2022). This doesn’t hold up, however, when more than a third of the world’s edible crops are fed to livestock. Hence, one factor in why we can simultaneously have an abundance of calories grown and food scarcity in application.
The problem is greater than the logistical storage and distribution issues. Livestock are extremely inefficient converters of food. That is, they consume much more food than they produce (in both calories and protein). They are also highly resource-intensive, requiring much more land, water, and energy than eating plant-based foods directly.
Many of the “extra” global calories are redistributed away from those who need it most to be used as livestock feed to produce animal-sourced foods for those who can afford it most.
As such, animal-sourced foods are a form of overconsumption and redistribution that reduce the amount of available food by increasing the price of basic food staples, effectively redistributing crops from people to livestock (food vs. feed).
Population Growth / Supply-and-Demand
Food scarcity is an increasingly critical issue as our population expands towards 10 billion in 2050. Climate change, pollution, and decreases in finite natural resources mean we will have many more people and far fewer resources to feed them.
Even among those who don’t view food scarcity as a current problem, there is concern about future scarcity. The trend towards increased global meat and dairy consumption exacerbates the problem as animal-sourced foods are highly wasteful and crop-intensive.
Many favored strategies to cope with increased food demand rely on technology to increase yield, thus increasing supply to keep up. Technology has a great deal to offer, but it also has a great deal of uncertainty (including negative externalities). Technology also tends to favor those who create it, often in pursuit of profits, so it cannot be relied on too heavily in pursuit of the common good.
To decrease demand (as opposed to increasing supply), some focus on reducing/reversing population growth. Such policies can range from oppressive to empowering.
Regardless of other methods, a practical and relatively easy way to improve global food security is to reduce the demand for global crops by reducing consumption of animal-sourced foods. Such a transition away from animal-centered diets would decrease demand for livestock feed, and thus competition for food more generally.
Fortunately, there’s no need to choose. Shifts towards plant-based diets put downward pressure crop demand, which naturally complements other demand- and supply-side efforts.
Plant-based diets also have positive benefits on food prices and access. While individual outcomes are the consequence of myriad political and socioeconomic variables, the basic concept of supply-and-demand is instructive. All else being equal, as the supply of food increases relative to demand, prices and food insecurity decrease. The biofuels example illustrates it below.
Biofuels, Meat, and the Food Crisis
To illustrate the impact of supply-and-demand, consider the ways in which biofuels increase demand for crops, thus decrease food availability and increase prices.
Crop-intensive biofuels were decried as a “crime against humanity” and a top contributor to the 2007-2008 food crisis. Meanwhile the negative impact of animal agriculture was mostly overlooked or dismissed.
Reducing the consumption of animal products would have an immensely greater impact on the supply and availability of food relative to reducing (even eliminating) biofuels. Unfortunately, animal-sourced food consumption is on the rise (predicted to double between 2000–2050). This “Livestock Revolution” is increasing climate destruction, resource depletion, food disparities, and death tolls.
The “Livestock Revolution”
The UN and think tanks warn that global meat and dairy consumption will double by weight between 2000-2050.
As of 2022, this prediction is on track. We’ve increased from 50 billion land animals slaughtered in food production to 80+ billion (using 2018 figures). Left unchecked, the number of animals slaughtered will continue to rise dramatically (possibly exceeding 120 billion land animals by 2050).
The “increases” are stemming primarily from the lower- and middle-income countries with ’emerging’ economies. It’s important to note, however, that their per capita consumption is far less than the U.S., Europe, Oceania, and other high-income and high-consuming countries. Their rate of change and ability to drastically increase their consumption stems in part from their relatively low levels to begin with.
This trend, known as the “Livestock Revolution,” is construed as such:
- a large starting population base of about 3-4 billion people in “developing” and “emerging” countries;
- relatively high birth rates that further multiply population in those regions; and
- increases in the consumption of animal-sourced foods enabled by income increases.
Meeting the increased demand for food due to population increases and resource limitations is a concern in itself, but the impact of the increasing consumption of resource-intensive animal-sourced foods compounds the problem.
While many experts recognize the impending food crises and environmental devastation caused by the increasing consumption of animal-based foods, the majority stop short of advocating for a reduction.
The International Food Policy Research Institute exemplifies this disconnect in their Livestock to 2020 report where they dismiss consumption-side strategies. They state:
“[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 [it].”
To meet the increased demand for food, some (like IFPRI at the time of the report) choose to focus on population planning/control (to reduce demand) and biotechnology (to increase yield/supply). Regrettably, consumption reforms are too often discounted as the increases are deemed demand-driven as if they are a fixed, non-elastic given instead of highly malleable.
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 champion a move in this direction. We advocate minimizing the consumption of animal-sourced foods (especially among high-consuming populations) and reversing the increased consumption trends before they become more entrenched.
While reducing consumption of animal-based foods is not a panacea, it must be part of the solution. It is a necessary and commonsense component of any sustainable food system.
Last updated 6/10/2022