The food “scarcity vs distribution” debate is reframed to show how the issues are connected as they relate to global hunger and food security.
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 inter-affecting 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.
Advocates, researchers, policymakers, and others often focus on a particular issue that is understandably narrow in scope. However, it’s critical that other meaningful aspects of comprehensive solutions 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 advance the ways in which shifts toward plant-based foods increase overall available food supply — and how this shift improves global distribution, equity, access, and sustainability.
In addition to increasing access to food, the shift towards plant-based foods and farming also improves many health and environmental factors that impact food security.
While a shift towards plant-based foods is not in itself a solution to global hunger, there are immense and myriad benefits which make it a necessary and critical component of meaningful solutions.
Enough For Everyone?
On paper, we have currently enough global calories to feed 9-10 billion people — but not when more than a third of our edible crops are fed to livestock.
Animals are extremely inefficient converters of food… that is, they eat much more food than they produce.
Animal-based foods (especially meat and dairy) are highly resource-intensive and require much more food, land, water, and energy than eating plant-based foods directly.
A majority of the “extra” global calories 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.
FOOD vs. FEED: Meat consumption increases global hunger by contributing to regional and community-level food scarcity by outbidding the world’s poor for food staples.
Population Growth Increasing Scarcity
Food scarcity is an increasingly critical issue as our 7.5+ billion population in 2019 expands towards 9-10 billion in 2050. Even among those who don’t view food scarcity as a current problem, there is widespread concern about future scarcity.
It’s clear that as our population increases, available land, water, energy, and other finite resources decrease. Thus, we have more people to feed and fewer resources to feed them.
The trend towards increased global meat consumption exacerbates the problem even more. Because meat is highly crop-intensive, a 30% population increase is expected to generate a 70% increase in demand for crops (as food and feed).
A practical and relatively easy way to improve food security is to reduce meat consumption, which decreases demand for feed and competition for food.
Favored strategies to deal with increased food demand revolve around technology to increase yield. Technology has a lot to offer, but also has a great deal of uncertainty and tends to favor those who create it.
Fortunately, there’s no need to choose. Shifts toward plant-based diets put downward pressure on crop demand, which naturally complements possible tech-driven increases to crop yield.
Agricultural supply-and-demand is a complicated process with many political and socio-economic variables, but the basic concept outlined below 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 below.
Biofuels, Meat, and the Food Crisis
A 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 the negative impact of food-intensive meat, dairy and egg consumption was mostly ignore or dismissed.
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 ten years in and this prediction is on track. We’ve increased 20% from 50 billion land animals dying for food production to 70 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:
“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:
“[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.”
Below are a few 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. Demand can be changed for the better.
We advocate a move in this direction. We advocate minimizing the consumption of meat and other animal products (especially among high-consuming populations) and reversing increased consumption (and production) trends in developing and emerging economies 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.