Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My Munchable Soapbox: Who Feeds the World?

When you think of farmers in the U.S. what comes to mind? Perhaps you see endless fields of corn and soy that one associates with the Mid-West. Maybe you attach the face of a vendor at your local farmers market. It could be a twenty-something urban farmer on the rooftops of Chicago, or the couple that own a dairy out in the Central Valley of California. And while each of us has some notion of the types of food produced in the States, the export market might be a little more of a black box.

A recent article written by Dan Charles on NPR’s food blog, The Salt, addressed the very interesting question of whether and to what extent American farmers feed the world. Apparently the answer is not that straightforward. Where do the major U.S. commodity crops go? Well, 40% of corn feeds cars and nearly all of our soy feeds livestock. So much for hungry people, eh? If we think about developing countries and food insecure populations, much of the issue is not even about enough food but rather the accessibility of what already exists. What U.S. grain exports do is lower the price of food for these people, making more food accessible.

However, cheap grains could mean substitutions for more nutritious fruits and vegetables, or moves away from traditional diets. Cheap grain also facilitates increased meat production and consumption, which at industrial scale is not so great for the planet nor the people living around these operations. And direct gifts of American surplus grain, the traditional model of food aid dating to the post-World War, may have further negative impacts by undermining the ability of local producers to sell their crops and support themselves (see World Food {Programme’s local sourcing projects).

So, all in all, industrial farmers in the U.S. may have reasons choosing the methods and technologies they use. But to continue rationalizing these choices by claiming to feed the world would be straying a bit from reality. Times are changing ... as is American public opinion of industrial ag.

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