Studies have repeatedly proven that plant-based diets are more sustainable and more equitable than diets heavy in meat and dairy. The widespread adoption of a vegan diet would have enormous positive implications for the globe, freeing up large quantities of land and producing more food with fewer resources. This could help the fight against world hunger in several ways, which is especially helpful because the UN predicts that starvation deaths could double during the pandemic.
Could veganism end world hunger on its own? Well, although veganism is a valuable component to solving world hunger, it is insufficient in itself to solve an issue that primarily hinges around the distribution of food and not necessarily the creation of it. We’ll get into all of the nuances of how we get our food and why so many people don’t have enough of it later in the article.
Can We End World Hunger?
World hunger can almost certainly be ended. This is evidenced by the fact that world hunger has been steadily decreasing across the world throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The situation has been improving, and there is no reason why it cannot continue to improve until hunger is eliminated.
A particularly convincing illustration of this point can be seen if one compares the levels of hunger in Europe roughly a century ago in 1919 with the situation today. As of 2016 most of the continent does not feature on the Global Hunger Index, with Eastern Europe and Russia as the exceptions. This is compared to 1919, where Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia, and Finland were all enduring starvation level famines. It is relevant that Europe had just been devastated by World War I. This shows us both that world hunger can be ended and that the proximate causes of hunger are often man-made, like wars.
Policy issues like poverty, poor infrastructure, and war are devastating enough, but when coupled with climate events like droughts, which are worsening due to global warming, the prevalence and severity of hunger become far worse.
Perhaps the most outstanding success story when it comes to combatting world hunger is that of China. Over a forty-year period, China succeeded in lifting 850 million people out of extreme poverty, an unprecedented achievement. As a result of this rise in living standards, the problem of hunger has been seriously undermined. Approximately two-thirds of the reduction in global hunger since the UN set its first targets in 1978 has occurred in China.
The UN has set ending world hunger by 2030 as one of its sustainable development goals. As of 2021, it is not on track to achieve this goal. However, the above examples show that it is possible, provided adequate planning and resources, to reduce hunger substantially and that there is no reason to believe that hunger must remain a fact of life for millions of people.
Where Is Hunger a Problem?
Hunger is an acute problem in many parts of the developing world. There are around 500 million hungry people in Asia and the Pacific and 250 million more hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the Global Hunger Index (GHI), which measures the prevalence of undernourishment, childhood wasting, childhood stunting, and child mortality, the ten most hungry nations were, in this order: Chad, Timor-Leste, Madagascar, Haiti, Mozambique, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Lesotho, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Rwanda.
However, many countries are left out of the picture due to insufficient data. Many are wartorn and therefore inaccessible, as is the case in Yemen, Libya, and the Central Africa Republic, the last of which recently had its food situation called “extremely alarming” and one of the worst in the world as of 2019.
Do We Have Enough Food to End World Hunger?
In terms of sheer volume, the answer is yes—the world already produces enough food to feed over 10 billion people, which is the projected human population of the world by the year 2050. So there is enough to go around, it is just unevenly distributed.
There are logistical issues with distribution, especially as large surpluses of food may be located in certain countries and would require transport to distant corners of the globe where hunger is a problem. However, without substantive change to the way that agriculture is organized and food is distributed—and to our choice of diet—feeding the future 10 billion will require crop yields to double by 2050.
Within the current agricultural paradigm, this will mean more pollution, more deforestation, and a rapid and potentially fatal acceleration of the climate crisis and ecological destruction.
Where Is All the Food Going?
If we already produce more than enough foods to end world hunger, then where is it all going? There are several major sectors that consume food:
A huge amount crops grown on the planet go towards feeding animals raised for meat, dairy, and eggs. This is a poor use of resources, as many plant calories are lost in raising animals. We feed 36 percent of crop calories to animals, yet only 12 percent of those calories make it to humans when they eat animal products.
At present, around 55 percent of food crop calories are directly consumed by people, with 36 percent consumed by animals and 9 percent being used as biofuel. However, there is also massive waste on the consumer end, particularly in the wealthy, developed parts of the world. For example, 53 percent of all food waste in the EU comes from households. It is therefore warranted to suggest that consumers should only purchase the food they eat, try and scale back on animal products, which require far more energy to produce than plants, and try and advocate for the creation of food recycling systems wherever possible.
One-third of all food produced globally is either lost or wasted, a shocking statistic for a planet still harried by starvation. Specific challenges exist in countries that suffer from hunger, which may also have a weak infrastructure. For example, India loses about 40 percent of its food production due to a lack of cold storage amongst retailers and wholesalers.
The UN has attempted to tackle these issues in line with its sustainable development goal to end world hunger and has seen progress tackling food waste amongst Egyptian grape farmers, for example, by investing in teaching farmers and producers sun-drying techniques. The UN also suggests a series of measures for consumers hoping to tackle food waste, including donating food and adopting a sustainable diet of which veganism is the most impactful.
What About Food Waste?
Food waste is a symptom of inefficient or indulgent food systems that require urgent inspection, funding, and reform. Persistently high rates of food waste encourage the agricultural industry to create more produce, which exacerbates greenhouse gas emission, deforestation, pesticide use, and all of agriculture’s contingent environmental problems. When organic matter, like wasted food, is dumped into landfills, the ensuing process of decay emits both CO2 and methane, which are both major contributors to global warming.
What Will Happen If We Don’t Stop World Hunger?
The impacts of hunger are universally devastating. It damages people’s intelligence, causes them physical pain and stress, and makes them unproductive economically. To put it plainly, there is no sector or element of society that benefits from hunger.
As the globe faces potential economic devastation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a strong possibility that many millions will be forced back into extreme poverty and other burdens like hunger. If these issues are left unaddressed, hunger may not only immiserate the lives of millions, it could kill them.
Additionally, there are adjunct problems famine can lead to, like civil war, conquest, or mass migration. Food secure areas of the planet could become beset by large waves of refugees from countries plunged into hunger. For example, 97 percent percent of staple crops in Africa rely on rainfall, making climate change a potentially cataclysmic issue for the region.
How Does a Plant-Based or Vegan Diet Help the Environment?
Adopting a vegan diet is the single largest contribution that an individual can make against climate change. It is better for the environment in numerous ways. Firstly, in terms of land use if all people adopted a plant-based diet current agricultural land could be reduced by 75 percent—an area the size of Australia, China, the U.S., and the EU combined or the entire continent of Africa. This not only means less use of water and pesticides but also fewer cows creating methane, fewer fossil fuels utilized to process crops.
A huge amount of current farmland is used either directly for animal agriculture or to grow crops that feed animals. With so much land freed up for use, governments could reserve vast swathes of it for rewilding. Rewilding would increase biodiversity and rejuvenate ecosystems, producing oxygen and counteracting the effect of CO2 on global warming.
Animal agriculture also pollutes the environment in unique ways, like water contamination via the animal slurry that is produced on meat and dairy farms and subsequently leaches into the ground. Animal agriculture is also the leading cause of deforestation, with as much as 80 percent of the Amazon being leveled for cattle ranches. Reversing these processes requires shifting consumer demands towards a vegan diet, which leads to more space, better air quality, rejuvenated wildlife and rainforests, and an altogether healthier planet.
Can Veganism End World Hunger?
The environmental benefits of a vegan diet would massively alleviate some of the pressures that affect world hunger. For example, climate change is driving up temperatures in Zambia, causing droughts, hurting its agricultural output, in turn leading to famines and undernourishment. Comparable effects of global warming can be seen in East Africa, where more persistent and severe droughts are driving up food prices beyond the means of millions of people, thrusting them into food insecurity and hunger.
Hunger is not only relegated to the developing world. A heatwave in Germany in 2018 cost the agricultural sector 3.5 billion dollars in damages as well as killing 1,246 people. Now, there is no prospect of a country as rich as Germany experiencing a famine any time soon. However, climate change may weaken otherwise strong nations and render them less effective in providing for their own citizens or responding to more severe food crises in neighboring countries or around the world.
There is a strong case to be made that climate change acts as a threat multiplier, exacerbating pre-existing tensions within societies. For example, wars are most likely to be caused by factors like low socioeconomic development, low state capabilities, and high intergroup inequality.
Yet all three of these factors can be intensified by climate change. Rising temperatures can damage the crops of subsistence farmers, impoverishing them and lowering a nation’s socio-economic development. This puts more pressure on a state’s already frail public services and can cause them to collapse. Poverty then leads to resentment and hostility towards either the nation’s ruling class or, more commonly, other groups within and around the country’s borders, leading to war.
There are many historical parallels to support such claims. Climate change was one factor behind the mass exodus of peoples from Northern Europe and Asia into the Roman Empire, and low temperatures undermined the agrarian foundations of the Roman economy. It would be too simplistic to say climate change caused the fall of that empire, as there were manifold other factors at play.
Reductive analyses that claimed that the Syrian Civil War was caused by climate change, for example, have been largely debunked. However, the concept that climate change is a threat multiplier remains an empirically credible idea. A climate-friendly vegan diet is an excellent way to reduce environmental damage and subsequent socioeconomic crises and wars, which may lead to outbreaks of extreme hunger.
By adopting a plant-based diet, the world would free up ample productive land for growing crops for human consumption, abandoning the wasteful method of feeding plants to animals who we then eat and scaling back pollution and climate warming. However, this would still need to be realized alongside the creation of new international institutions and infrastructure, or the reinforcement of existing bodies like the UN, to organize and distribute food to the hungry. Without such developments, the disturbing prevalence of some wasting and some wanting, some dying of obesity and some of starvation, will continue.
Can You Feed the World on a Vegan Diet?
You absolutely can feed the world on a vegan diet, and with far less land and far less environmental damage. Indeed, the most consumed form of food in the world are grains, which account for an average of 45 percent of the food in global diets. A vegan diet would mean the earth producing calories most efficiently, going directly to consumers without animal intermediaries, and the subsequent abundance of land would lead to more space for additional crops, which could help feed hungry people around the world.
What Will Happen If Humans Stop Eating Meat?
Many things will happen if humans stop eating meat. There will be huge advantages, as well as several issues which would require addressing. Heart disease, for example, should significantly decrease on a vegan diet. Climate change will be reversed and a vast area of land will become available for development or rewilding.
Trillions of animals will be spared the squalor and immeasurable suffering of industrial agriculture, as well as the killings of traditional farming in an unprecedented era of animal welfare. Towns subjected to the elevated crime and substance-abuse rates encouraged by neighboring slaughterhouses will benefit, and the hardships and trauma of slaughterhouse workers will disappear.
There may be difficulties surrounding education as populations learn how to adequately feed themselves and provide thorough nutrition on a vegan diet. Meat-centric cuisines would have to readjust, although perhaps not so much as one might think, as a meat-free world would possess immense resources and a desire to produce increasingly appetizing meat substitutes.
How Can You Help?
There are many ways to help regarding the issue of world hunger. Make sure to cut down on food waste, adopting the UN’s sustainability advice. If you want to do all that you can do to combat climate change, the single biggest move you can make is adopting a plant-based diet. You can also lobby local politicians and representatives to address issues of climate and international aid, as well as food recycling and sustainable agriculture.
Numerous charities attempt to deal with the issue of hunger, and establish infrastructure and training to combat it, including Oxfam and Save the Children, among many more—donating to these can help address the problem. If you live in a country that suffers from hunger, voting for the state implementation of economic security and welfare programs can help address the issue.
Veganism alone cannot solve world hunger. Even if the world produced billions of more pounds of food, it would make no difference if these calories failed to end up in the hands of the hungry. However, adopting a vegan diet certainly does stop world hunger from getting worse, as global heating and climate change put unprecedented pressure on international agriculture on top of a growing population.
A vegan world could provide a future where hunger could be more robustly addressed. More food would be available for humans than ever before, and it is possible that an atmosphere of abundance could facilitate cooperative attitudes towards funneling more food to combat hunger. Although veganism is not a silver bullet for the issue of world hunger it would create a healthier, more abundant, and more sustainable food supply. Now, it is up to humanity and our better natures to build, support, and reinforce the institutions needed to consign hunger to the dustbin of history.
UK based writer opposed to the unnecessary suffering of all beings. Dissecting our treatment of animals in history, philosophy and culture. Founder of The Liberator online magazine.