Thursday, May 22, 2008

Meating the challenge of a global food crisis

A friend writing from Ethiopia reports that food "prices have gone through the roof to the point that even families that ate comfortably before are taking turns eating meals."

If Americans switched from meaty diets to grainy ones, the price of grain would drop globally, making it easier for the poor to afford food. Wikipedia claims that animal farming consumes about 70% of the US grain crop.

It is plain that the idea of going vegetarian as a method of addressing the food crisis is not merely the product of naive intellectuals sitting round their round tables and chewing the fat. In the words of a vegetarian colleague in an email to me: "when you eat meat, you make people go hungry, suffer and die.....the world thanks YOU."

Should I stop buying meat? Is buying meat a brutal slap in the face of the world's starving poor? The easy answer is "yes."

But I like meat. And before I give up meat, I want a few questions answered.
  • How much does buying strawberries affect the global price of grain? If I have to choose between giving up strawberries and giving up meat, which will do more good?
  • How much does buying a set of cotton sheets reduce the land available for grain production?
  • To what extent are global grain prices determined by distortions caused by agricultural subsidies and governmental regulations -- will my decision to not buy meat really make a difference?
Apart from the food crisis, the effect of eating meat on greenhouse gas emission is substantial. According to this study, a typical American who sells the SUV and starts driving a mid-size sedan reduces carbon emissions by about the same about as if they instead chose to become a vegetarian.


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