It’s World Food Day

It’s World Food Day

Shape of things to come? Nairobi KFC, the first in East Africa

Note: this blog was published originally on for World Food Day. Food Day is October 24, 2012.

It was an astounding sight: a huge image of a beaming Colonel Sanders. The jacaranda tree in front of the shopping plaza made clear that I was in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, and not a garden variety U.S. strip mall. This was the first KFC in East Africa and, the newspapers said, lines stretched around the corner on opening day.

In a globalizing, urbanizing, and increasingly interconnected world, the reach and appeal of U.S. fast food seems almost boundless. This reality makes for some odd juxtapositions: a McDonald’s outside the main Olympic stadium in Beijing. It’s the only food outlet in sight, and one of more than 1,500 McDonald’s in China; a new one’s opening each day.

It’s not just American fast food that’s going global; many aspects of the U.S. food system itself are. That means a priority on mass production of animals for meat, dairy, and eggs, cereals, and crops like corn and soybeans that play a huge role in the feeding farmed animals. Perhaps astonishingly, the combined “harvested acres” of vegetables and pulses (beans and lentils) in the U.S. are just 2 percent of the total.

But this system doesn’t fit the bill for a world where climate change, resource scarcity, hunger, and food insecurity are all-too-real, and concern for food justice, animal welfare, and real equity and sustainability are growing. It’s something that Food Day, October 24th, offers a terrific opportunity to explore.

This summer’s severe drought in the U.S. offers one object lesson and shows the flaws and fragility of the industrial agriculture model. Corn and soybeans -together a majority of U.S. “farm acres” – took a beating. The U.S. is the world’s top producer and exporter of corn and also a significant producer and exporter of soybeans. Millions of dollars each year in subsidies to producers help ensure this.

Because corn and soybeans are major ingredients in the feed most farmed animals in the U.S. and elsewhere eat, livestock producers saw their costs skyrocket. Among the results: rising prices for animal-based foods, not only in the U.S. but globally, as well, and a large-scale slaughter now underway of millions of pigs and cattle who can’t be fed.

Each year, nearly 70 billion land animals are used in food production around the world, a number that could reach 100 billion by 2050. Development of industrial livestock production over the past half century made it possible to raise large numbers of animals in extreme confinement in indoor facilities. These factory farms and feedlots are now central to U.S. agriculture, and increasingly, the world’s.

India, where ethical vegetarianism has a long history, is now the world’s fifth biggest producer of poultry meat, and 90 percent of the two billion chickens that come to market each year in India have been raised in factory farm-like conditions. In China, factory farming is also making inroads, helped by international and domestic investment. Production and consumption of animal products is rising fast. China raises and slaughters more than half a billion pigs a year and the Chinese now eat more meat than any other country (double U.S. consumption).

Work by Brighter Green and a small but growing cadre of scientists and institutions suggests that the pattern cannot hold. Raising animals for food is highly grain-, water-, and land-intensive, and the global livestock sector is a key emitter of climate-warming greenhouse gases.

A study released in August at an international water conference included a stark warning: “There will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected 9 billion population in 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in western nations.” The scientists suggested that at most 5 percent of total calories from animal-based foods might be realistic, if certain conditions were also met.

Interestingly, McDonald’s is opening a fully vegetarian outpost in India’s holy city of Amritsar. Is this the shape of things to come?

What isn’t in doubt is this: we all have a role in bringing about a more sustainable, equitable, humane and climate-compatible food system — as citizens, advocates, farmers, eaters, researchers, producers, and thinkers and doers, here and around the world. The recipe’s pretty clear, and the ingredients (facts, principles, examples) are within our reach