High rates of mortality and the containment of diseases that sweep through a CAFO with tens of thousands of nearly genetically identical animals pose a continual challenge for massive scale production.

Myth: Industrial Food can Feed the World


Feeding the entire world a diet emphasizing industrial meat and other animal products could exponentially increase world hunger by diverting much of our crop-producing capacity into growing feed for animals. It could also greatly reduce or eliminate traditional diets of grains, legumes, and native fruits and vegetables, and ultimately lead to devastating nutritional diseases and environmental problems.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, the world’s 800 million hungry people were outnumbered by 1 billion people who were overweight.1 The increasing adoption of the Western diet, with its emphasis on animal food products (often high in saturated fats), is contributing to this global nutritional conundrum. Massive amounts of grain are diverted to fatten livestock rather than to feed the undernourished. Yet poverty-stricken people cannot afford to purchase meat and other luxury foods that have emerged as the core of the modern industrial agricultural diet.

Food Versus Feed Exporting the Western model of industrial meat production significantly widens the hunger gap between the world’s wealthiest and poorest residents. Not only does an expansion of meat production divert more land and resources from feeding people to fattening animals, it also involves a transition away from traditional staple cropping systems toward grain and soybean monocultures for export. In a world of plenty, the poor often find themselves even further deprived of their farming heritage, lacking access to land or the financial resources to buy into factory farming’s new world food order.

In the United States, 157 million tons of cereals, legumes, and vegetable protein are fed to livestock to produce just 28 million tons of animal protein in the form of meat.2 In contrast, an acre of cereal crops can produce five times more protein than an acre used for meat production. Using land in developing countries to create an animal-intensive food chain has resulted in a food security crisis and misery for hundreds of millions of people.

According to author Jeremy Rifkin, the human consequences of the shift from food to feed production were dramatically illustrated during the Ethiopian famine in 1984. While locals starved, Ethiopia exported linseed cake, cottonseed cake, and rapeseed meal to European livestock producers. Despite this history, millions of acres of land in the developing world are still being used for export feed production. Tragically, 80 percent of the world’s hungry children live in countries with grain surpluses that are fed to animals for consumption by the affluent.3

Exporting the Western Diet Whether intentional or not, the forces of agribusiness are promoting the animal product–intensive Western diet around the world at the expense of traditional foods. Multinational corporations that supply the seeds, chemicals, and cattle and also control the slaughterhouses and the marketing and distribution of beef are eagerly promoting grain-fed livestock. A nation’s prestige becomes linked with its ability to “climb the protein ladder.” Chicken and egg consumption are at the lower rungs. As their economies grow, nations climb to pork, dairy products, grass-fed beef, and ultimately to grain-fed beef.4 U.S. fast-food chains have opened restaurants in more than 120 countries. In China alone, pork consumption is growing dramatically, with the equivalent of over 1 million hogs slaughtered each day to meet the country’s surging demand for meat.

Many experts argue that while the Western diet is pulling people away from traditional foods, it cannot possibly feed the entire world. According to Professor Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba: “Extension of the affluent world’s carnivorousness to the rest of the global population is . . . impossible with current crop yields and feeding practices.”5 Feeding the entire world a Western diet that emphasizes meat, dairy, eggs, and other luxury products, says Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University, would require over 6 billion acres of agricultural land—67 percent more than presently under cultivation.6 Not only can the Earth not provide enough arable land to support a spike in meat and animal food consumption, it can’t sustain the environmental damage that would be inflicted on the world’s air, water, soil, and ocean resources as a result. The industrial meat model simply will not scale up to feed the entire world a Western diet in its present form.

As people grapple with global dietary and nutritional ironies, it is also important not to reduce the issue to an oversimplified choice between a meat-based and a vegetarian diet. A significant reduction in an animal product–intensive diet is arguably in the long-term best interests of the planet. But the overall issue is complex. Studies show, for example, that sustainably raised, locally procured animal product–inclusive diets can compare favorably in environmental impacts to heavily processed, long-distance transported, plant-based diets. These shifts in diet and production will take place over a long period of transition and will not be distributed equally across the landscape, as regions are climatically suited for certain types of food production.

What we are not yet sure of is how to produce regionally diversified, nutritionally balanced diets that are sustainable over the long term. Certainly we can and must do better.

1. Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2008), 1.
2. Jeremy Rifkin, introduction to Feed the World, Viva! (Vegetarians International Voice for Animals) Guide No. 12.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Vaclav Smil, “Eating Meat: Evolution, Patterns, and Consequences,” Population and Development Review 28, no. 4 (December 2002): 599–639.
6. Ibid.

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