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Fact or Myth – Does America still feed the world?

The average U.S. farm feeds 155 people worldwide in 2018, up from 26 people in 1960.

Photo credit – Josh Friedman via Flickr

When critics of industrial agriculture complain that today’s food production is too big and too dependent on pesticides, that it damages the environment and delivers mediocre food, there’s a line that farmers offer in response: We’re feeding the world. These words “feed the world” bother many people who believe that large-scale, technology-driven agriculture is bad for the environment and often bad for people.

In several Seagate blog articles, most notably represented by this one – Big tractor – little tractor, we pull weeds – they spray ’em  –one of the major arguments presented by conventional farmers was that without the use of GMO seeds and their chemical resistance to the herbicides and pesticides that they can then apply in abundance, they would no longer be able to feed the world and the ever-increasing world population.   Setting aside for the moment the argument about whether seeds modified by biotech firms do or don’t produce real healthy food, that herbicides are needed in order to increase yields and save the manual cost of weed removal, and that pesticides are also a necessary tool in modern farming  … despite the fact that these chemicals end up in the foods that you eat, today’s blog focuses on whether it really is true that the U.S. is still the “breadbasket” of the world.

American-style farming doesn’t really grow food for hungry people. Forty percent of the biggest crop — corn — goes into fuel for cars. Most of the second-biggest crop — soybeans — is fed to animals.  Chinese pigs grow fat on cheap soybean meal grown by farmers in the U.S. and Brazil, and that’s one reason why hundreds of millions of people in China are eating much better than a generation ago. So indirectly, the American farmer can say that they are helping to feed the world, though indirectly by supplying the grain to feed the animals that then feed the people.  But another way to look at this is —  The big crops that American farmers send abroad don’t provide the vitamins and minerals that billions of people need most. So if the U.S. exports lots of corn, driving down the cost of cornmeal, “it induces poor families to buy lots of cornmeal, and to buy less in the way of leafy green vegetables, or milk,” that have the key nutrients. In this case, you’re feeding the world, but not solving the nutrition problems.

The production of “meat, meat products, and animal feed” ignores the root causes of hunger and malnutrition.  U.S. agribusiness focus on increasing production of meat, dairy and feed supplies to meet demand from a growing middle class does little or nothing to ease global hunger and malnutrition. The countries that need the food for the impoverished do not have the infrastructure to receive, store or distribute the food. The poor and malnourished do no have the funds to purchase nutritious food nor the ability to store it and protect it under sanitary conditions.

Forty years ago, the founder of Seagate was involved with a U.N. (FAO) project to supply edible fish meal to Africa. The project was abandoned because back then there was no way to distribute the meal within Africa, to store it, and to educate the people how to utilize this very rich source of protein. After the initial funding by U.N. agencies, there also was no way to secure a source of revenue to actually pay for this export. Those needing the protein source, had no money to pay for it. The conclusion back then has not changed in 2018 — that the best and most efficient way to feed those that need the food is to teach local farmers how to grow their own crops on small commercially viable farms.  The American industrial farmer shipping their farm production to Western Europe and China will do very little to alleviate hunger and malnutrition in those areas of the world needing the most help.

Maybe it is not really the job or the American farmer to food the world’s needy. Or having the population expand from the current 7.5 billion to 9-10 billion in the next 30 years makes this a numerically impossible proposition. Or if the only way to accomplish this is by using “modern” industrial methods that require the unhindered use of pesticides, herbicides, and GMO crops which are not producing quality foods, maybe this is not the right way.  If this is giving you a headache, perhaps it is time to visit Richard’s pet eel.  He lives in a crevasse off of Belize and waits for Richard to visit every few years.  The photo allows you see the membrane covering his eyes.  This photo was taken with the camera one foot away from this eel. The eel is smiling because he recognizes his friend.

Moray eels look scary but are just protecting their territory.



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