Scarcity vs. Distribution

The food “scarcity vs distribution” debate is reframed to show how the issues are connected as they relate to global hunger and food security.


Global hunger and food insecurity are frequently oversimplified as being primarily a problem of scarcity (not enough food) or a problem of distribution (not enough access to food). More accurately, hunger and food insecurity result from a web of immensely complex and inter-affecting factors, including both food supply and distribution issues.

While problems of food distribution relating to poor storage, transportation, and policies are obvious, distribution is also significantly impacted by supply-and-demand considerations such that separating supply/scarcity and distribution creates a false dichotomy.

Advocates, researchers, policymakers, and others often focus on a particular issue that is understandably narrow in scope. However, it’s critical that other meaningful aspects of comprehensive solutions are not negated in the process. Treating hunger solely as a problem of distribution can result in harmful strategies and practices that undermine crucial long-term solutions. Similarly, avoiding food scarcity alone is not a panacea and should not be considered a solution in itself.

As it pertains to A Well-Fed World’s mission, we advance the ways in which shifts toward plant-based foods increase available food supply — and how this shift improves global distribution, equity, access, and sustainability. While a shift towards plant-based foods is not in itself a solution to global hunger, there are immense and myriad benefits, which make it a necessary and critical component of meaningful solutions.


Isn’t there more than enough to feed everyone?

Theoretically we can feed 9-10 billion people, but not when vast amounts of food are fed to animals to produce meat and other animal-based foods.

Animals are extremely inefficient converters of food… that is, they eat much more food than they produce. Animal-based foods (such as meat, dairy, and eggs) are highly resource-intensive and require much more food, land, water and energy than eating plant-based foods directly.

A majority of the “extra” food is redistributed away from those who need it most and used as animal feed to produce meat for those who can afford it most.

As such, animal-based foods are a form of overconsumption and redistribution that reduces the amount of available food and increases the price of basic food staples.

In short, those with financial resources outbid the poor and increase hunger.

Population Growth

Food scarcity at the global level is an issue now with past surpluses being drawn down and it is fast becoming a critical issue as our seven billion population expands towards nine billion by 2050.

As our population increases, available land, water, energy and other finite resources decrease. So we have more people to feed and fewer resources to feed them.

Scarcity is further exacerbated by our appetite for resource-intensive animal-based foods.

Animals-based foods, include but are not limited to all types of animal flesh (cows, pigs, goats, sheep, birds, and aquatic animals). Animal-based foods also include products that are produced from animals, most notably their reproductive products such as dairy and eggs.

Basic Supply-and-Demand

Agricultural supply-and-demand is a complicated process with many political and other variables, but this is the basic concept which holds true under many scenarios:

As the supply of food tightens, decreasing supply relative to demand… prices increase and fewer people can afford the basic food staples needed for survival.

When food is exported from a poor region… their local supply of food decreases, which can lead to higher food prices… and more deaths from hunger and hunger-related causes.

On a global scale, when staple foods (grains, soy, corn, etc) are used as animal feed to produce resource-intensive animal-based foods, the global food supply is lower relative to demand and food prices are higher than many can afford.

There are many other factors involved, but that is the basic concept. The biofuels example illustrates it best.

Biofuels, Meat, and the Food Crisis

The most prominent example of food supply-and-demand is the way in which biofuels increased demand for food staples, thus increasing the price of food and contributing to a global food crisis.

Food-intensive biofuels were demonized as a top contributor to the mid-2000’s food crisis, but the negative impact of food-intensive meat, dairy and egg consumption was mostly ignore or dismissed.

Reducing the global consumption of animal products would have an immensely greater impact on the supply and availability of food relative to reducing, even eliminating, biofuels.

While food supplies can be tightened and relaxed by agribusiness and policymakers, in the long run food is a limited resource. Reducing consumption of animal-based foods would take pressure off our limited food and environmental resources. It would decrease demand relative to supply, allowing for a downward pressure on food prices to fall.

Unfortunately, animal-based food consumption is on the rise at an unprecedented rate (expected to double between 2000-2050). This “Livestock Revolution” is creating wider disparities and higher death tolls.

The Livestock “Revolution” Increasing Demand

The UN warns that global meat consumption will double between 2000-2050.

We’re more than ten years in and this prediction is on track. We’ve increased 20% from 50 billion land animals dying for food production to 70 billion. Left unchecked it will continue its dramatic rise.

The “increases” are stemming primarily from the lower- and middle-income countries even though their per capita consumption is still far less than the U.S., Europe and other industrialized and high-consuming countries.

This trend, known as the “Livestock Revolution,” consists of:

  • a large starting population base of about four billion people in developing countries
  • relatively high birth rates that further multiply population in those regions
  • drastic increases in the consumption of meat, dairy, and other animal products

Meeting the increased demand for food due to population increases is a concern in itself, but the impact of the increasing consumption of resource-intensive animal-based foods compounds the problem.

Scarcity and Meat Consumption

While many experts recognize the impending food scarcity and environmental devastation caused by the increasing consumption of animal-based foods, most stop short of seeking a reduction.

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute in their Livestock to 2020 report:


“The demand-driven Livestock Revolution is one of the largest structural shifts to ever affect food markets in developing countries and how it is handled is crucial for future growth prospects in developing country agriculture, for food security and the livelihoods of the rural poor, and for environmental sustainability”

Unfortunately, instead of calling for policies to reduce meat consumption and reverse the trend, they assert that meat consumption is demand-driven, and that we should focus on how to best meet the increasing demand. They continue:


“[I]t is unwise to think that the Livestock Revolution will somehow go away in response to moral suasion by well-meaning development partners. It is a structural phenomenon that is here to stay. How bad or how good it will be for the populations of developing countries is intricately bound up with how countries choose to approach the Livestock Revolution.”

To meet increased global food and meat demand, think tanks such as IFPRI promote population planning/control (to reduce demand) and biotechnology (to increase yield/supply).  Conveniently, they do not promote dietary change of (over)consumers or up-and-coming high-consumers. The claim that increasing per-capita consumption is demand-driven as if it is a fixed, non-elastic “given.”

AWFW’s Goal

These are some of the assumptions and rationale that A Well-Fed World seeks to correct.

While meat consumption may be demand-driven in an economic sense, the demand for meat and other animal products is socially-constructed and can be redirected with targeted policies, subsidies, and education campaigns.

We advocate a move in this direction. We advocate minimizing the consumption of meat and other animal products, especially in high-consuming countries and reversing increased consumption trends in developing countries before they become more entrenched.

Reducing consumption of animal-based foods is not a panacea, but it must be part of the solution. It is a necessary and commonsense component of any effective reform and sustainable food system.

Recommended Reading

Humane Society International’s report on the impact of industrial farm animal production on food security in the developing world.


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