While it is true that the meat industry (and that is all meat - not just cattle
, but sheep, pigs and poultry
, too) is a badly managed industry with many unethical
, wasteful practices
, and that it consumes more resources than, say, the apple industry, equating beef with third world hunger is simply incorrect.
First, there is this truism about how much grain a pound of beef equals. But I know some cattle farmers, and to my knowledge most cattle are not fed grain. They eat grass if they're lucky, supplemented by all sorts of stuff, from parsnips in the organic trade to hormones and reconstituted waste at the shallow industrial end. And it does not necessarily follow, either, that if all cows were to be got rid of tomorrow, grain or any other crop would immediately replace them. On the pampas of Argentina, as well as many places in Africa and Asia, it would be virtually impossible to economically farm anything but livestock due to lack of reliable irrigation. So much for cows guzzling the planet's bread.
As for the idea that if we all went vegetarian, there would be more food in the world, well, yeah, ok, there may be. But does it then follow that the US, say, will give its surplus food to the starving multitudes in the third world? Yeah, right. As it is, there isn't a single wealthy country in the world that meets the internationally agreed target of 1% of GDP in foreign aid. Not one. To think that an overhaul of the agricultural production system will change that is naive in the extreme.
Of course, even if the governments of the industrialised west did all wake up one morning and decide to ship millions of tons of rice or millet to poor countries, it still wouldn't be enough. Famine is not so simple a phenomenon as to be encompassed in the lack of food production. War is in fact the major cause of hunger, as well as bad administration, lack of a reliable supply chain and the simple avarice of corrupt regimes. Look at Zimbabwe - a superbly fertile country whose people are currently on the brink of a widespread famine, because their government simply sold off its food reserves.
Also to blame, of course, are trade agreements and farming subsidies across the world. Some foods are actually cheaper for us to buy than for the people who produce them. We have cheap sugar from Haiti and cheap tomatoes from Ghana, while the people in both those countries are routinely malnourished. No amount of vegetarianism will change that. In fact, if we traded in all our cows for tomatoes, the poor Ghanaian farmers would be even worse off, as they will be denied what small income they can make at the moment by selling us theirs.
I'm not saying that we as consumers in the west cannot make a difference to the quality of life of people in the third world. We can. By buying fairly traded versions of products which are not grown in our own countries - coffee and chocolate being the most widely consumed such cash crops - we can help ensure that those who labour to produce our luxury goods don't themselves go hungry. The other thing we can, and should, do, is lobby our governments and policy makers for a fairer deal for third world farmers.