She had to choose between a medication that could save her life, and beans and other food staples to feed her child.

At a time when much of the news is focused on the disparity between wealthy executives at Goldman Sachs and working families facing foreclosure, it might be easy to forget those who have suffered the most from the economic crisis.

But the difficult choices facing mothers I met in sub-Saharan Africa make it impossible to ignore.

As a physician who was recently working in East Africa, the facts and figures of the economic crisis have morphed for me into young and old faces with names, and their daily struggles to secure food and fight the effects of malnutrition.

According to a U.N. report, the number of people going hungry increased in 2009 to approximately 1 billion people — most of whom are young children and women. An estimated 200,000 to 400,000 more infants will die each year because of the economic crisis, according to the World Bank. In many countries, the price of staple foods has increased by 50 percent, and the average food budget has increased to at least 60 percent of household income.

Food insecurity has many causes, including the economic crisis. But there is another key factor — the rise in meat intake in both the industrial and the developing world. Worldwide meat production has increased more than 10 times faster than the population growth rate over the past several decades. Dairy consumption has followed a similar trend.

Meat-laden diets play a key role in world hunger, primarily because animal agriculture is a terribly inefficient way to produce food. Raising animals for food requires 10 times as many crops as are required to support plant-based diets. Meat production also requires enormous inputs of water and other scarce resources.

Projections suggest that meat and milk consumption will continue to increase dramatically in coming decades, unless we make changes in our personal dietary habits and domestic policies. Alternatively, we will also continue to face increased rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer — all diseases which neither industrialized nations such as the United States nor developing countries have adequate resources to fully address.

Prevention would be much less painful — for patients and the global economy. Vegetarians are approximately five times less likely to die from ischemic heart disease than people who consume meat on a regular basis, according to a 20-year German study. Studies also show that a low-fat, vegetarian diet can reverse obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Unfortunately, fast-food restaurants are cropping up across the globe. India’s first Taco Bell restaurant opened in April. North Korea’s first fast-food restaurant opened last year, serving minced meat and fries.

But before Americans point fingers at Pyongyang, we should consider our own enormous appetite for meat and other animal products. Between 1909 and 2007, Americans’ intake of meat increased from 123 pounds to more than 200 pounds per year, according to a new report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In 2007, Americans also ate nine times more cheese than they did in 1909.

As a global leader, we are setting a poor example by raising and killing more than 10 billion land animals per year. These patterns are horrible for people, animals, and the environment. The United Nations, the Pew Commission, and numerous independent scientists have pointed out the links between animal agriculture, massive air and water pollution, and global warming.

But there is a solution. I recently conducted a continuing education session for nurses from rural villages in Uganda, in which local residents prepared a healthful and abundant vegetarian meal that included plantains, beans, greens, cassava, bananas, and other locally grown fruits, vegetables, and grains.

Why don’t we follow their lead? If consumers begin choosing more vegetarian meals, we’ll help prevent global food insecurity and address climate change — and we’ll live healthier, longer lives.

Hope Ferdowsian is associate director of the Washington Center for Clinical Research, a subsidiary of the nonprofit vegan group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

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