Starving for Rights: Food Access and Security on the Table for Human Rights Day


On the 21st of March South Africans celebrate Human Rights Day in remembrance of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre where apartheid police tragically killed 69 peaceful protestors marching against the oppressive regime of the time. It was a crisis point which served to further vilify the national autocratic institutions and cement the infamy of a ruling party which could no longer hide its abuses and brutality to the world; fostering its own demise.  

This year’s commemoration of Human Rights Month coincides with the 28th anniversary of the adoption of the new Constitution, signed into law by Nelson Mandela in Sharpeville itself. Today we have a progressive democracy which enshrines inherent rights to all within our borders including the right to equality, dignity, liberty, freedom of association, and expression, freedom from slavery and torture – and most crucially – the right to life itself. 

Now decades into our rebirth, financial decay, economic inequality and lack of functional infrastructure are all-consuming issues, vociferously debated in the lead-up to the May election. Anchored into such immediate dilemmas the tendency can be to casually eschew longer term problems such as climate change and the non-sustainability of our food system: but these are chickens that will come home to roost for South Africans in the foreseeable future. 

An empty stomach can’t be negotiated with and quality of life begins with access to food. Combined with rising costs of living, sooner or later the idea of having a right to adequate nutrition may become far more urgent. Starvation quickly ceases to be an abstract concept as soon as it’s happening to you – and in the years to come it may not just be self-evident in rural villages, but in large urban centres as well.  

As the human population expands, the question of how we can feed the world sustainably in the future is pressing. The challenge of distributing resources and feeding a growing global citizenry in order to create a just world with less hunger and mitigate environmental problems has never been more relevant. Therefore changes that we make to our lifestyles and policies in this decade are pivotal.

It is expected that the world population will grow by more than 30 percent by 2050, with around 11-13 billion people on the planet by 2100. Achieving food security for everyone is by no means a simple task when you consider that globally nearly 815 million people are undernourished, and the poorest and most vulnerable communities are disproportionately impacted. 

Sub-Saharan Africa is a hotbed of chronic hunger, with 226.7 million people starving on the continent. According to the World Health Organisation in 2022, approximately 390 million adults aged 18 years and older worldwide were underweight, with nearly half of deaths among children under 5 years of age linked to undernutrition, particularly in low-income countries. In the same year, nearly 258 million people across 58 countries experienced crisis-level food insecurity or worse, according to the World Food Programme

The developmental, economic, and social impacts of global malnutrition are serious and enduring. For millennia anthropogenic forces have pressured the environment into a crucible of rapid change which will significantly impact land-availability, agricultural outputs, water resources and human movement over the next century. Keeping up with worldwide caloric demands will be increasingly burdensome. 

The problem, however, is not that we don’t or can’t have enough food; it’s in what we eat. The real, egregious waste occurs in animal agriculture. Over 50 percent of the world’s crops are grown to feed livestock, not people. If all crops were used exclusively for direct human consumption, it would increase available food calories by 70 percent, which would mean that an additional 4 billion people could be fed. Following a plant-based diet more than 10 billion people could be nourished using existing agricultural land. 

Intensive livestock production uses about a third of the world’s grain, and about 75 percent of soya. Feeding grain and soya to animals and subsequently consuming their meat and milk is less efficient in terms of energy, protein than eating the plants directly. Soya alone can provide up to 15 times more protein per hectare than food of animal origin. Other legumes, beans, pulses and grains also have higher levels of digestible protein per hectare.

The growing demand for animal products requires developed nations to import hundreds of thousands of tonnes of animal feed – in particular, soya, maize, and grains – from developing countries. For example, nearly 60 percent of the land required to satisfy the EU’s demand for agricultural and forestry products lies outside Europe. 

More than 2.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water today. Animal agriculture requires nearly one-third of the world’s total potable water and the water footprint of any animal-based product is larger than that of plant-based products with equivalent nutritional value. It’s far more water-wise to obtain calories, protein, and nutrients from plants than from animals.

Animal agriculture contributes to deforestation and land-use change, such as the conversion of wilderness into farmland. The livestock and fishing industries are responsible for the loss of biodiversity, decreased ecosystem functions and pollution. The consumption of animal-based products on a massive scale decreases food security for hundreds of millions of people from the Global South who are negatively affected by the land-use necessary to produce these products. Our lands are occupied by raising crops to feed livestock in wealthy countries, our oceans overfished to satisfy demand abroad, while we frequently struggle just to survive.

A plant-based diet uses fewer resources, creates less pollution and contributes to a more equal world. Animal products are in truth luxury foods and our appetite for it exacerbates both world hunger and the unfair distribution of food. The hunger for animal products ends up as starvation. 

Inhuman Rights

The tumult of extending rights to life and liberty even to all people on Earth is a struggle that persists in society even today, much less to other mammals and sentient beings in general. If the way that we treat animals is any kind of reflection on our reluctance towards equality, it paints an unflattering picture. 

The most recent data about land animals bred, kept and slaughtered for consumption has revealed an estimated annual figure of 92.2 billion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. About 900,000 cows are slaughtered every day, 202 million chickens, hundreds of millions of fish, and add in a few million pigs, goats, sheep and ducks on average, courtesy of Our World in Data. The scale of humanity’s meat consumption is enormous, grist for the mill at 360 million tonnes every year.

If one attributes even a small measure of ethical significance to their suffering, then the moral implications are immense. Not just in slaughter, but in the typically abominable circumstances of the squalid, confined captivity in which they live. Recently, Cape Town residents had a pungent reminder of the poor living conditions extant in animal agriculture when a ship – the Al Kuwait – docked in their harbour carrying 19,000 live cows, to the outrage of many.

The average person on a Western diet eats thousands of animals during their lifetime, most of which come from factory farms. Plant-rich diets, however, drastically minimise the number of animals who live in these conditions. International laws against animal cruelty, at least, have advanced significantly since the 1990s. Progress is slow, but the needle is moving. 

As we ponder our own journey to emancipation on this Human Rights Day we should also think about how many of the world’s most pressing problems share a common and preventable cause – animal agriculture – which contributes to climate change, lifestyle diseases, global hunger, and animal suffering; what the right to life really means and how this dynamic can be flipped with a simple dietary change. One halcyon day our umbrella of rights may just come to extend beyond those of homo sapiens. 


Media Contact

ProVeg South Africa – Wikus Engelbrecht – Communications Manager: [email protected]; +27 64 172 0120

About ProVeg South Africa:

ProVeg South Africa is the local branch of ProVeg International. ProVeg is an international food awareness organisation working to transform the global food system by replacing conventional animal-based products with plant-based and cultured alternatives.

ProVeg works with international decision-making bodies, governments, food producers, investors, the media, and the general public to help the world transition to a society and economy that are less dependent on animal agriculture and more sustainable for humans, animals, and the planet.

ProVeg has permanent-observer status with the UNFCCC, is accredited with UNEA, and has received the United Nations’ Momentum for Change Award.