The Politics of Dinner

Approximately 795 million people suffer from chronic hunger. Many of these individuals—780 million of them—are from developing countries. While data indicates that global hunger has declined since the late twentieth century, world hunger remains a salient topic in international politics. In a sense, this issue has less to do with the total availability of food than with the way it is distributed in our highly capitalist society. In part, global hunger is a result of the inefficient and immoral allocation of available food. Due to increased global demand for meat, modern food production is increasingly dominated by livestock production, which represents an especially profit-driven and monopolistic market. As a result, significant amounts of food resources are given to the millions of livestock worldwide, while many people are subject to food shortages. Given that modern methods of agriculture produce more than enough food to feed the human population, such shortages are better understood as a result of societal error rather than as actual deficiencies in global food resources. Additionally, this increased meat production has meant significant deforestation and represents a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. While livestock production’s unsustainability threatens the environment which, in turn, can jeopardize food security in the near future, meat production also poses a direct challenge to the presently starving population. In order to bring about real change in environmental degradation and global hunger, the international community must adequately acknowledge the role of livestock production and consumption in regard to these phenomena.

The Green Revolution of the mid-twentieth century yielded unprecedented increases in food production. Currently, however, the outcomes of this revolution have serious implications for environmental protection. In Comfortably Unaware, Richard Oppenlander, an expert in the field of food sustainability, indicates that present methods of livestock production account for a significant portion of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, almost half of all land on the planet and nearly a third of freshwater extraction are used in livestock production. In fact, cattle ranching accounts for 80% of deforestation in the Amazon. These statistics indicate that what people eat has direct implications for the health of the environment. And, agriculture’s role in climate change has become increasingly recognized in the political sphere. In the monumental Paris Climate Agreement, as participant countries are given freedom to decide how they will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, approximately 80% of the signatories have indicated that they plan on addressing agriculture’s impact on the environment. In other words, it is becoming increasingly evident that environmental protection requires significant changes in how food is produced. 

Despite the seeming recognition and acceptance of the role that agriculture plays in environmental degradation, the status of livestock production continues to work against the desire to effectively target global hunger. The amount of grain produced can feed the human population approximately two times over. While this seems antithetical to the claim that nearly 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger, this apparent contradiction is explained by the existing emphasis on livestock production. Over three-fourths of the grain that is produced is fed to the many millions of livestock in the food industry. Therefore, as the demand for meat continues to increase globally, it is possible that more grain will be allocated to feed livestock while many millions die of starvation. This hints at a primary factor in the global hunger problem—improper allocation. That is, an important driver in global hunger is the unfair and inhumane distribution of the world’s food resources wherein many thousands die daily of starvation while the number of livestock, who consume the food resources that could eliminate world hunger, continues to grow. Thus, as the Green Revolution permitted stunning increases in grain yield and, more generally, increased the amount of food available, it also led to a rise in livestock production and consumption. As these livestock must be continually fed, significant portions of grain continue to be allocated to the meat industry to drive a highly profitable and monopolistic sector of the economy. 

In turn, the grains given to livestock represent the vital resources that are no longer available for the hungry people across the world. In a stark contrast between food resources, Oppenlander notes that while almost half of the Ethiopian population struggles with hunger and water scarcity, the nation feeds approximately 150 million livestock. In neighboring Eritrea, over 60% of the population is undernourished. Yet, 80% of Eritreans work in the nation’s agriculture sector, which specializes in livestock production among other things. Meanwhile, in certain regions of the Horn of Africa where livestock take up nearly half the landmass, farmers theoretically would be able to grow thousands of pounds of grains, vegetables, and fruits that would go a long way in feeding the hungry people in the surrounding regions. However, as is the case for approximately half the landmass, livestock production yields only a fraction of such output. Moreover, much of the meat and dairy products produced on these lands does not function as a solution to local hungry populations but is instead shipped to wealthier countries. These examples demonstrate that as people perish from starvation and other hunger-related illnesses, livestock are given the food and resources that could save thousands of lives daily, all the while further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, livestock demand and consumption, namely by more developed nations, continue to perpetuate climate change while sidelining global hunger in the face of monopolistic profitability. 

Global hunger and environmental protection have resulted from and are propagated by a variety of factors. In terms of livestock production, however, these two issues converge on a clear implication: the current level and nature of livestock production is unethical and unsustainable. Capital-driven livestock production challenges the environment in a variety of ways that include high levels of greenhouse gas emissions and unsustainable water and land requirements. Also, the high profits associated with the livestock industry contribute to a problematic allocation of food resources—while about 8,000 children die daily from hunger-related illnesses, large portions of global food resources are produced for livestock. Although there does appear to be increased agreement that agricultural practices must be included in a solution to climate change, efforts to combat both climate change and global hunger require greater international commitment to modifying the food on our plates.

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