How a vegetarian diet can solve obesity & world hunger

11 August 2011

health, hunger, nutrition, obesity

By Victoria Endsley, CFJC Intern

I recently began reading a book by John Robbins called Food Revolution, and have been incredibly disconcerted but awakened by many things about food because of it.  It is truly a fascinating book, and I won’t try to touch upon everything that it covers, except to say that if you want an education on why what you eat matters, read his book.

Of particular interest to me was a section that covered obesity and world hunger statistics.  In his section “What we Know” about hunger, Robbins cites that the number of underfed and malnourished people in the world is exactly the same as the number of overfed and malnourished people in the world: 1.2billion (Robbins, p 290)[1].  It’s tragic that we have enough food to feed everyone on Earth, but not everyone has access to it.

If only people thought about their personal choices in the context of the food landscape of the Earth as a whole.  If, for example, my eating less allowed someone that was hungry to eat more, I would feel real ownership of my food decisions.   This doesn’t mean that I don’t care about what I eat, but sometimes people need a direct, visible example of the consequences of their actions.  In fact, the impacts of one country’s food choices on other countries are real, but difficult for us to see.   Specifically, of course, I mean the impact of the US’s actions on other countries is very real.

According to a study produced in 2010 by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, commonly known as FAO, the three main reasons for undernourishment are:

1) Neglect of agriculture relevant to very poor people by governments and international agencies;

2) The current worldwide economic crisis, and

3) The significant increase of food prices in the last several years which has been devastating to those with only a few dollars a day to spend.[2]

So what does it seemingly all come down to, you might ask? Poverty creates hunger; hunger causes disease; and disease can lead to death.   Both the source and the solution to the crisis and conflict come down to food.  Provide people with enough to eat every day and terrible crises will be averted, that often lead to violence.  Cultivating the means by which people can feed themselves everyday creates needed stability especially in countries that are dealing with violent or political unrest.

Yet, I recognize I am simplifying a problem that is tremendously complex, and so instead would urge you to think about the three fundamental causes of undernourishment worldwide and how those affect certain countries more than others.  It’s hard to miss the media coverage of the famine in Somalia at the moment.  This crisis is garnering tremendous attention and is a particularly delicate situation. Elsewhere in Africa, access to healthy food has been difficult to come by and as documented in the film The Price of Aid about hunger issues in Zambia and the price of foreign aid. It is clear that countries, if unable to economically support themselves, will in fact often suffer more from the influx of foreign aid in their countries as author Linda Polman discusses in her book Crisis Caravan.

Nationally, however, the US fights an equally expensive and reprehensible crisis: obesity.  As if we have forgotten our past entirely, we notoriously over-indulge in food.  Beyond the obvious health risks, obesity costs us money.  Health care is costing us a fortune in this county, whether you’re on government assistance, receiving help from your employer or paying out of pocket.

The answer, as I see it, and as Robbins I believe would confirm, is that going vegetarian will help resolve the problems of obesity in the US and hunger worldwide.  As far as obesity is concerned, it is clear that practicing a balanced, vegetarian diet is healthy, and while I could list off a whole string of statistics that Robbins shares with us about the incidence of disease with practicing vegetarians vs. meat-eaters, I will assume that you agree with or at least understand the benefits of a vegetarian diet.  Instead, though, I am more shocked by the connection between the growth in livestock production worldwide to support a US meat market and in turn, the disappearance of lands used to cultivate fruit and vegetables for locals.  Who knew, after all, that “our” dietary habits directly inconvenience or worse still endanger the lives of others?

Now that you know this, will you change the way you eat?

[1] Gardner and Halweil, “Underfed and Overfed.”


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