Is the soybean a solution to world hunger?

Can the soybean solve the world’s hunger problem? Bethany Davidson, research coordinator for the Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products, College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, doesn’t think it’s that simple.
“I would say that the soybean cannot solve the world’s hunger problem. In fact, I would argue that no one crop can — to be sustainable a system needs to be diverse. What happens when your food system is based primarily on one crop and you suddenly have disease or pest problems that wipe out your crop or continuously growing the same crop depletes your soil and reduces productivity? We believe that a diverse system relying on several different crops reduces risk, increases food security and is much more sustainable.”
There is no one solution when solving such issues as world hunger, pollution, global warming or violence. The question — “can the soybean solve the world’s hunger problem?” — is a more rhetorical question than a direct one. However, the soybean, touted as a “miracle food,” presents a solid argument for being a planet saver.
The impetus behind this question is that in solving world hunger, I want to do it without meat. As a vegetarian, my principal source of protein is the soybean (and other legumes). The soybean is not only an excellent source of protein, it also remains a primary cooking oil, a staple food for many parts of the world and has more uses than the rubber band and duct tape combined. It’s also one of America’s top cash crops.
To many people in America, the issue of world hunger seems but an irritating public service announcement on late night TV. A dole and somber Sally Struthers-like character walks through a dismal scene of starving children with flies buzzing around their heads, as she requests meager donations from rich America. If a highly civilized society is based on high ethics, then America has surely failed to heed the call of one of the most crucial ethical dilemmas facing the world today: hunger. America is by no means alone in this struggle, for world hunger is a world problem.
Whether or not killing someone with a bullet — as in war or crime — is worse than letting someone starve to death is an issue worthy of debate. Determining that letting people starve is the most unethical act perpetrated by humans is arbitrary. War is in some ways justifiable. Fighting for one’s freedom, and having to kill in the process, is one example where the unethical act of killing becomes an ethical one. Leaving a child to starve to death is unadulterated neglect. Choosing to ignore the plight of the hungry and the innocent is to me, the most heinous crime of all.
Solving the problem, or, to be more proactive — finding a solution — is even more perplexing than understanding how fortunate people can neglect unfortunate people. The simple answer is to feed them. But how? A starting point is an ancient proverb: “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” A kink in this proverb, for me, is that I’m a vegetarian. So the word fish must be replaced with a non-meat alternative. “Teach a man to plant …”
Solving a monumental problem like world hunger requires a holistic approach. To really solve the problem now and on a sustainable basis, virtually every other sustainability problem has to be solved as well. Water has to be clean. Political barriers must be eliminated. World population must decrease. Waste of current resources must be significantly reduced. Alternative energies must be utilized. Literally, an entire globalization process must take place, an idea not entirely farfetched when one considers the green revolution.
Numerous organizations are reaching out at global levels, and networks of smaller organizations are initiating similar agendas. The phrase “world hunger” conjures up visions of flea-bitten and bone-protruding children — a depressing image most people just don’t want to see. And the phrase “endangered species” does not include humans. Heading into the new millennium, words like ecosystem, sustainability and holistic are the new catch-words, inspiring a proactive involvement and most definitely include humans in the equation.
Unfortunately, it is most difficult to get people to act ethically toward life forms other than themselves. Such is the anthropomorphic nature of human beings. But to use this as an advantage, when humans see that their survival depends on the ecosystem they are a part of, they will most certainly take a keener interest in insuring the health of that ecosystem.
I face a dual ethical dilemma when offering non-meat foods as a means of solving world hunger. One, I am not adhering to the principle of the highest ethic so stated in the beginning of this writing, that people should be fed now; and two, feeding the hungry now means feeding them with whatever means available.
In the here and now, faced with an individual starving, the most ethical act would be to feed that person immediately with whatever means available, animal or vegetable. There are, of course, medical risks in feeding someone on the verge of death, and if liquids or injections are the initiating method to saving someone’s life, then that ought to be the first step that common sense dictates.
On a grander scale, if the most ethical act would be to immediately answer the hunger problem on a global level, then societies like America ought to gather up its surplus food, especially the food it wastes, and immediately transport it where it is most needed. This response ought to be now.
It is clear this is not being done, except by the most astute of individuals and organizations currently feeding the hungry. Spending ten minutes browsing the United Nations Food and Agriculture Program Web site is all it takes to realize how politics and bureaucracy impede the ethical response of feeding the hungry.
Within the political quagmire that prevents an immediate response, the long-term solution seems even less attainable: sustainability.
Another dilemma is that if non-animal foods are to be used exclusively in feeding the hungry and the world as a whole, then what do we do with our domestic animal populations? The meat industry will come to a halt. The fishing industry will no longer be over-exploiting oceans, lakes and rivers. Breeding practices will cease to exist. The principal sources of meat, namely, cattle, chicken, pigs, fowl and fish, will return to a live and die process of natural selection without interference from humankind.
Land used for grazing will be converted to cropland. Crop rotation will increasingly become one efficient means of sustaining the land. On a higher ethical scale, the world, because it is no longer killing animals to survive, will become a more peaceful one.

NOTE: This is my last column. To the University and the Daily, I’ve enjoyed our journey.
— Jerry Flattum