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The impact of our diet choices on global hunger & sustainability

Hunger kills more people every year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Yet, 760 mn tonnes of grain (35% of global production) is grown to feed animals instead of humans - a process which is 2-10x more inefficient in terms of grain consumption.

Global food challenges

Snapshot of global hunger challenges

Even today, hunger is a serious global challenge. As per the United Nations Food Programme1:

  • Hunger kills more people every year than AIDS, malaria & tuberculosis combined
  • 870 million people (i.e. 1 out of every 8 people) suffer from chronic undernourishment
  • 3.1 mn children every year (i.e. 353 children every hour) die due to hunger & malnutrition
  • 98% of global undernourishment takes place in the developing world – 578 mn in Asia & the pacific, 239 mn in sub-saharan Africa, 53 mn in Latin America and 37 mn in Near East and N. Africa.

Current projections indicate that the world population will increase from 7 bn people today to 9.1 bn in 2050. With rising incomes & consumption, food production will have to increase by 70% in the world and 100% in developing countries, to satisfy global food demands2. The UN FAO estimates that by 2050, an additional 1 bn tonnes of cereal and 200 mn tonnes of livestock will need to be produced every year to meet growing demand.

Given the scale of food, water, land and environmental challenges already being faced globally, the question of whether we will be able to feed people as populations & consumption continues to grow, possibly threatening the sustainability of human existence on the planet.

Livestock and global hunger

Risks associated with main agricultural systems

Agricultural systems across the world are at risk, bringing into serious question our ability to grow the food requirements of a growing population.

The livestock sector raises 24 bn animals every year. There are 3 times more animals being raised for meat & dairy than the number of people on the planet. Since these animals have to be fed, a large part of our agricultural produce gets diverted to farmed animals rather than humans.

741 mn tonnes of grain are fed to farm animals every year – accounting for 35% of global grain production. In addition to grain, 105 mn tons of brans, 14 mn tons of pulses, 27 mn tons of oilcrops, 215 mn tons of oilcake, 142 mn tons of roots & tiubers and 3.9 mn tons of fishmeal are also fed to animals -- making a total of 1.25 bn tonnes of feed per annum (Source: UN FAO).  This is an extremely inefficient process – depending on the animal, it takes between 2-10x the amount of calories to make one calorie of animal meat.

Hunger, sustainability and diet

A global shift towards increased consumption of plant based foods and lower consumption of meat & dairy products, would have an effect of freeing up significant food resources that can be used to feed the millions dying of hunger and malnutrition every year.

The UN FAO currently projects that meat consumption is likely to increase from 37.4 kg/person/year in 2000 to over 52 kg/person/year in 2050 (Source: UN FAO – Livestock's Long Shadow 2007), putting a significant strain on our food resources. The report however states that if per-capita consumption levels of meat can be capped at current levels, it would free up an estimated 400 mn tons of cereal per year for human consumption – enough to cover the annual calorie need for 1.2 bn people in 2050.

What if the world turned vegan?

The United Nations Environment Program estimates precisely this in their Enviroment & Food Crisis Report and concludes in 2050 ''taking the energy value of the meat produced into consideration, the loss of calories by feeding the cereals to animals instead of using the cereals directly as human food represents the annual calorie need for more than 3.5 billion people"

To understand this number better, a global shift to a vegan diet by 2050 would free up enough grains to:

  • take care of all population growth from 2011 to 2050 (i.e. 2 bn people)
  • feed every hungry person in the world today (i.e. 870 mn people)
  • and still have enough grains for another 630 mn people

What if the world turned vegan today

Using the same calculation methodology as UNEP, a global shift to a vegan diet today would:

  • save 760 mn tonnes of grain which could be fed to humans instead of farmed animals
  • which is sufficient to feed an additional 1.87 bn people
  • in other terms, we could find enough grain to feed every hungry person on the planet (i.e. 870 mn people) and still have food left over for an additional 1 bn people.

 

References: 

1 - UN World Food Program, Hunger Stats
2 - UN FAO, The state of the worlds land and water challenges
3 - UN Environment Program, Environmental Food Crisis