"Better a meal of vegetables where there is loveA vegetarian friend used to quote this proverb in support of her practice. I would then gleefully point out that the proverb assumes the superiority of meat to vegetables in order to make its point, namely, that the superiority of love over hatred is even greater. Nonetheless, over the last year or so, and particularly in the last few months, this proverb lies at the heart of why I have become an (almost) vegetarian (technically, a semi-vegetarian or flexitarian).
than a fattened calf with hatred." - Proverbs 15.17
Our planet produces an abundance of food, enough to feed over ten billion people, according to some estimates. Yet we are in the middle of a food crisis, with wheat prices more than doubling in the last twelve months and other grain prices not far behind, leading to riots and political unrest amongst many poorer nations. If we are growing so much (and last year broke all records for maximum production), where does the food go? Increasingly, much of it is turned into biofuels so that first-world drivers (and governments) can feel less guilty about our energy-intense lifestyles. The corn used to generate one large petrol tank of ethanol-based fuel would feed a person for a year. Nonetheless, biofuels, although growing rapidly, still take only about 5% of the world's grain production.
So why are we short of food? One major reason is because we eat so much meat. To produce one kilogram of beef, it takes around eight kilograms of grain.* Chickens have a better ratio, but whatever your fancy, it still takes more energy to produce meat than other kinds of food. This article summarises a number of the key statistics and links them to current food prices (H/T Nicole), as does this one and this one and this one. The bottom line is that the western meat-based diet (and its increasing emulation by China and India) is helping push those on the edge of poverty into malnutrition. There is indeed plenty to go around, but our opulent lifestyle consumes so much that others cannot afford even the basics.
*This is also an issue of water management. To produce a kilo of wheat takes between 1-2,000 litres of water; a kilo of beef takes between 10,000-13,000 litres.
So can we, out of love for our neighbour, reduce our consumption of meat? I think it both possible and desirable, and now try to avoid buying or consuming it wherever possible. This is not to say that eating meat per se is wrong (though certainly there is much mistreatment of animals in our current system - another genuine moral issue, though a discussion for another time). On the contrary, I give thanks for meat as a good gift of God, but I am trying to regard it as an occasional luxury rather than a staple. There used to be a slogan "Live simply so that others can simply live"; I think we can also say "Eat simply so that others can simply eat". Better a meal of vegetables for everyone than a fattened calf for some while others go hungry.
PS This article puts some of the concerns well.
PPS I note there is also a Wikipedia article summarising some of the concerns.