Food crisis solution: Go vegan

Peter Singer


Kai Ryssdal: The floods that've hit the Midwest are sending already high corn prices to new records. That means meat's going to get more expensive too.

Texas, meanwhile, is dealing with brutal heat and drought. Agricultural officials there say the livestock industry stands to take an enormous hit.

So if meat and corn are off the table and other grains are prohibitively expensive, what are we supposed to eat?

Commentator and bioethicist Pete Singer says our diets are going to change whether we like it or not.

Peter Singer: Why are we in the midst of a food crisis when world production of food per person has actually grown steadily since the 1960s?

The answer is that we're not eating the food we grow, sometimes not eating them at all, sometimes wasting at least 80 percent of them.

100 million tons of corn is turned into biofuels that go into our gas tanks. That's a lot less corn for people to eat.

But most corn isn't eaten by humans; it's eaten by animals and that's the biggest part of the problem. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 756 million tons of grain plus most of the world's soybean crop are fed to animals and that amount has increased sharply in recent years as Asian nations have become more prosperous and their populations have started eating more meat.

When we use animals to convert grain and soy into food we can eat, they use most of the feed to keep warm and develop bones and other parts we can't eat. So we're wasting most of the food value of the crops we feed them. In the case of cattle, at least nine-tenths of the grain they eat is squandered.

Is there a simple way to solve the food crisis? Here's one suggestion: Eat less meat, dairy and eggs. In fact, that's what our diets will look like 50 years from now -- vegan or close to it -- unless, that is, someone works out how to grow environmentally friendly and commercially viable meat from cells in a lab.

Last month, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, offered a million dollars for anyone who can produce commercially viable meat from a lab in five years. That time frame is too short, but if they were to extend the deadline to 50 years, I would expect someone to claim the reward.

And if PETA is no longer willing to pay up, the market surely will.

Ryssdal: Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His most recent book is called "The Ethics of What We Eat."

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Kudos to Peter Singer for discussing the inconvenient truth of the tremendous wastefulness of animal-based diets. It is scandalous that at a time when an estimated 20 million people die annually worldwide of hunger and its effects, 70% of the grain produced in the US and over 40% of the grain produced worldwide is fed to animals destined for slaughter. Animal-based diets threaten to make global hunger worse in the future by contributing significantly to water shortages, global warming and soil erosion. It takes up to 14 times as much water for an animal-based diet than for a plant-based diet. According to a 2006 UN FAO report, animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than all of the cars and other means of transportation worldwide combined (18% vs. 13.5%). Making matters worse, that same UN report projected a doubling of meat consumption in 50 years, worsening global warming and many other environmental problems. A major shift to plant-based diets is essential to move our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.

Producing meat and dairy products is not all about taking food away from people: cattle produce much milk and meat using feeds that people can't. Like grass, and leftovers from making plant-derived food, clothing, and fuel (think citrus pulp from orange juice, cottonseed from making cotton cloth, and distillers grains from ethanol (whiskey or fuel) -- most plant-based products we use have such leftovers). Cattle actually do society a service by recycling millions of tons of these leftovers that would otherwise be waste, and giving us food and other products in return.

Also, to grow meat in tissue culture, you’d need to use the same high quality protein and energy that people could use directly. That would not seem to make this approach noncompetitive with human food needs. (Red herring vs. possible fillet?)

I really can't believe humans will be eating meat created in petri dishes in 50 years, or that we must become vegans. I don't plan to do either. Why not let animals like cows, sheep, and chickens eat the food they were eating before we began feeding them grains? Cattle can forage on open range and grasslands, which would eliminate the need for environmentally unfriendly feedlots. It would make the cattle healthier, and the humans eating the cattle healthier as well.

I disagree with your premise that eating meat is the cause of grain shortages -- far from it. The vast majority of domestic meat animals are NOT fed on corn and soybeans, rather, they are grazed on marginal land that can not be used for any other form of agriculture.

Even here in upstate New York, there are livestock (beef, sheep, goats and poultry) raised on good plain grass and forage, on land not suitable for gardening or farming. These animals can convert forage -- which is undigestible to us humans --into nutritious, tasty meat, milk or eggs.

If you have some spiritual or religious reason for not wanting to eat meat, say so. Don't spread these tidbits of misinformation throughout the media, and don't keep repeating these myths as if they were facts!

Please do not confuse the smaller market of cornfed, lot-raised meat with the greater reality of forage and grass-raised meat prevalent throughout the world.

The changes in animal husbandry that take place when you try to mass produce meat or dairy products in central locations do not reflect the ways in which smaller farmers, local producers or the vast majority of the population on this planet raise their food.

If you care about the ethics of your food, buy local, from smaller local farms.


Chris Squires
Little Biddy Farm
Hannibal, NY

I was surprised and saddened to hear bioethicist Peter Singer's commentary on food production. His arguments against using grain for biofuels and for eating less meat left out several critical points. In regards to biofuels, he does not mention the fact that, in the case of corn, in the past several years as more U.S. corn is used for ethanol, corn yields have continued to increase, keeping pace with the diversion of corn for fuel and thus not significantly decreasing our food supply. Also, at least 1/3 of the corn used for ethanol goes right back into the food supply as high-quality feed (dried distillers grains) for livestock, especially cattle. In regards to "wasting" grain on livestock, he's evidently assuming that 1 lb. of grain has the same human nutritional quality as 1 lb. of meat, dairy products, or eggs. It does not!! Livestock, especially cattle (ruminant animals) are able to convert humanly indigestible plant material such as cellulose from grasses or grains into highly digestible protein and other nutrients. Eating a portion of grain will not afford a person the same nutrient package as eating an equivalent portion of meat, eggs, or dairy products. That is one reason why people in developing countries begin consuming more protein as soon as they can afford to. I listen to NPR because I appreciate the attempt to keep stories balanced. The airing of Singer’s commentary unfortunately makes me suspicious of the veracity of other commentary on topics I know less about.


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