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Food crisis solution: Go vegan

Marketplace Staff Jun 17, 2008

Food crisis solution: Go vegan

Marketplace Staff Jun 17, 2008


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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