Will Veganism Solve World Hunger? Maybe, But Not in The Way We Think
This is the first of a three part series I’m writing on global poverty and veganism. The second will talk about the question of people "eating meat to survive" and the third will discuss poverty alleviation programs that "invest" in animal property.
Global hunger has joined the list of reasons to go vegan. The reasoning seems to be this: in order to raise animals to kill and eat, we need to feed them. Because of the loss of energy when you go from one level of the food pyramid to the next, this involves a lot more food than it takes to directly feed humans. All of that food given to animals could instead be given to people starving around the world.
As I'll lay out at the end of the blog, there are some ways veganism (and animal liberation) might help with global hunger, but I don't think this direct reason holds up, at least for people in rich countries.
The issue with global hunger is not that we don’t have enough food. It’s that we don’t have the food where we need it to be. To the extent it's about scarcity, it's about local scarcity. Veganism in communities facing severe hunger might help, but I don’t think that’s what people are talking about when they say veganism will solve world hunger. Veganism in the U.S. is not going to do much for rural Ghana.
Think about it this way: many people suffering from hunger are subsistence farmers. What they eat is largely a question of what they grow. If they trade locally, it’s a question of what they grow (to determine their purchasing power) and what other people grow near them.
If they can trade in a denser urban center or in an extreme case with a foreign country, then what people are eating in the United States might have some effect on them, but it’s small.
In fact, sometimes the distribution of food from the U.S. in developing countries has the opposite effect. Food aid is sometimes instead "food dumping," where developed countries distribute food at artificially low prices and exclude domestic farmers from the market, potentially exacerbating poverty. So again, freeing up more grains in the U.S. is unlikely to help. There’s also evidence that this aid sometimes increases conflict.
Now, I highly doubt veganism makes global hunger worse. The sad truth, though, is that it’s altogether unlikely to directly affect global hunger on its own.
There are ways the animal liberation movement can intersect with the global poverty movement. Weakening the American agricultural lobby might help both causes (a reason to push for institutional reforms rather than individual veganism). Though the extent of the connection is often exaggerated, the consensus seems to be that animal agriculture does exacerbate climate change, which will fall largely on the backs of poorer countries.
And of course: there’s one thing that may link the two more than any other: morality. Fighting one injustice can open one up to actively fighting another. Vegans and vegetarians do tend to react more to human suffering and preference for meat is strongly linked to illiberal values. I think this is mostly because people who are already compassionate go vegan, but it’s weak suggestive evidence that there’s a connection between these varieties of compassion. Psychologist Steven Pinker makes a persuasive case in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that human beings are susceptible to escalating reason and empathy, and the (irrefutable) ideas that animals' interests count and those of people living in other countries count are mutually reinforcing. If veganism helps address world hunger, it’s not going to be because of what we’re eating – it’s going to be because of why we’re eating it.