Tuesday, April 12, 2016

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.

4 comments:

  1. I agree that it's not just a question of shipping a bunch of corn to impoverished country X instead of feeding the corn to livestock. There are huge social problems here, and while it is strictly speaking true that technically we have the ability to ship corn now fed to livestock to the starving people in country X, it won't work unless you also overcome these social obstacles in country X, as you correctly point out.

    Having said that, though, could you solve these social obstacles without veganism (or something like it, some sort of massive reduction of animal products)? My suspicion is that the answer is “no”: veganism (or something like it) is not sufficient to solve world hunger, but is necessary to solve world hunger.

    We really face something even bigger than a world hunger problem. We face a “limits to growth” problem. We’ve been pretty much at the limits to growth since 2005, running up huge amounts of debt, resource depletion, and biological degradation, in return for anemic improvements to the world economy. You can’t deal with world hunger without dealing with the “limits to growth” problem, and you can’t deal with limits to growth without veganism or something like it.

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  2. No, I tend to think veganism is not necessary for world hunger. I don't think there's much of a causal connection between the two (except maybe via one of the less tight ones I put forward above).

    I don't know that we've seen signs of limits to growth via resource depletion and certainly not debt - some deal of debt is well and good and possibly healthy. I think we may be reaching a limit just in that there is less to do and fewer improvements to make, except more automation. I think there's a penchant among many people to overdramatize resource depletion and the like (it's such a trope of dystopian fiction) that hasn't really happened. It really is distributional. We have seen climate change taking an increasing toll, and it seems like the science does suggest that veganism would help there (although it's really just about the cows in that case, whereas if you care about animals cows are the least used ones).

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  3. So is the natural world, the environment, just part of the economy? Or is the economy a smaller part of the environment? If the latter, there must be limits somewhere.

    Total megafauna biomass has expanded 7 times in the last 500 years. Humans, their livestock, and their pets are currently over 90% of that megafauna biomass -- and that's mostly livestock, by the way (Anthony Barnosky). Global phytomass declined 40% in the last two millennia, and 10% just in the 20th century (Vaclav Smil). Soil erosion is happening 10-20 times faster than the rate of natural soil formation (David Pimentel). I could go on about deforestation, oil depletion, climate change, groundwater mining, etc. Shouldn't economists be thinking about these kinds of things?

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  4. Right right I agree with that, and economists do think about it, though I think they should think about it more. My point about resources was aimed at food, which we haven't seen affected by climate change except in a distributional sense (see my post from yesterday) by hindering the growth of upstart industrializing countries. Totally agreed that more broadly defined a number of resources are at least in peril (though again, it's likely we will at least to some degree find new ways of eking gains out of them).

    I think terms like the economy and the environment are probably too vague to answer those questions concretely but the issue is that our access to the environment expands over time. This was what proved Malthus wrong in the 19th century - he thought the environment couldn't sustain growing numbers of people, but new industrial techniques managed to eke more out of it.

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