We must not feed the world

Yesterday, a major farm state newspaper featured an editorial which almost perfectly captures what ecological resilience researchers have been saying for years:  shipping food to hungry nations undermines resilience of those societies and our own.

dscn7127-2In the last month in Africa, I saw both the pressure to feed hungry people and the destruction wrought by overpopulation.  Six children is an average family in rural areas in Malawi.  The population has grown from 3 million at independence to 11 million today.. Trying to make a living has led to a landscape stripped of trees.

In a previous visit to Africa, I found that many men in rural Uganda have a dozen children by multiple wives.  Sacks of grain donated by US and Europe sit in every home.  They can’t grow near enough to feed their children on their small plots.  But grain produced by polluting Midwest rivers enables them to have as many children as they like.

Here’s what the Des Moines Register said:

As farmers harvest another bin buster this fall, we often hear talk about Iowa’s duty to “feed the world.”

Except we don’t. We can’t, and we shouldn’t.

Our farmers are experts at producing a bounty, and they have gotten the message that they must do so to feed a growing planet. But the truth is, the most effective way to reduce world hunger is to help small farmers in Africa, Asia and elsewhere increase their productivity and income.

Most U.S. agricultural exports go to countries whose citizens can afford to pay for them. A new report by the Environmental Working Group found:

  • 86 percent of the value of U.S. agricultural exports last year went to Canada, China, Mexico, Europe, Japan and 15 other markets with low numbers of hungry people, according to the U.N. Development Program. In 2015, animal feed, led by soybeans and corn, contributed 40 percent ($39.3 billion) of the total value of the top 25 U.S. agricultural exports.
  • Only half of one percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to a group of 19 undernourished countries that includes Haiti, Yemen and Ethiopia.

The claim that U.S. agriculture “feeds the world” is not a harmless myth. It provides a moral justification for continuing practices that have harmed Iowa’s environment and led to low prices for farmers. It also can be used as political ammunition.

At the Farm Progress Show in Boone last summer, Iowa agriculture leaders warned of threats such as regulations, lawsuits and consumer backlash.  “If we don’t unite and fight for our ability to operate, we won’t be successful in meeting our vision of feeding the world’s growing population,” said Craig Hill, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation president.

Instead of fighting back, perhaps Hill and other leaders should heed this message: Consumers don’t expect you to feed the world. A 2015 study by the Center for Food Integrity shows that only 25 percent of consumers surveyed believe, “The U.S. has a responsibility to provide food for the rest of the world.” Respondents were more interested in access to healthful, affordable food.

This is not to say that the U.S. shouldn’t look for more markets to export its farm products. Iowa’s economy has certainly benefited from trade. Exports of pork from Iowa totaled $1.4 billion in 2014, according to the Iowa Pork Producers Association. About 36 percent of Iowa’s soybean crop — including whole soybeans, meal and oil — is exported annually, the Iowa Soybean Association says.

A business opportunity, however, is not the same as a moral imperative. Iowa must balance the economic benefits of trade with the cost of feeding a few wealthy countries. How much should Iowa bear the environmental consequences of satiating growing appetites for meat in China and other nations?

Or can we bear the burden in other ways, such as investing more in agricultural research and development aid in developing nations? What practices and technologies should we encourage to help farmers here and abroad produce more without harming water, soil and air?

Iowans have the opportunity to consider such questions this week during the awarding of the World Food Prize in Des Moines. The Borlaug Dialogue will focus on improving nutrition and fortifying crops in developing nations. Speakers at several public events around the state will discuss how to help small farmers in Africa, how reducing childhood malnutrition can boost a society’s prosperity, how to address climate change and how Iowa can better care for its own hungry people.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and other activists will hold alternative events protesting the role of industrial agriculture, holding rallies and awarding the Food Sovereignty Prize.

Expect a vigorous debate and disagreement on the most effective way to “feed the world.” But let’s begin by setting aside myths about Iowa’s role and responsibility.

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