Can American Farmers Feed the World?

A new report argues that increasing U.S. agricultural production isn’t the best way to combat hunger and malnutrition around the globe.
A combine harvester drives over stalks of soft red winter wheat during the harvest on a farm in Dixon, Illinois. (Photo: Jim Young/Reuters)
Oct 5, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

It was just a few generations ago that American farmers struggled to feed themselves and their families. If they were lucky, they’d have a bit left over for market too. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farm sizes have doubled during the last 20 to 25 years, and American farmers now want to feed the world in addition to themselves and the country. It’s a point of pride for many in agriculture: At the Illinois Farm Progress Show three years ago, DuPont encouraged farmers to answer the question “How are you making a difference to feed the world?” By the time the three-day show was over, more than 3,000 had posted written notes with their answers—many of them involving producing more milk, meat, and corn to sell around the globe.

But most of these products aren’t making it onto the plates of the people who need them most. Not only do the majority of U.S. exports go to nations with high incomes, but a lack of infrastructure such as roads or markets in developing nations cuts food distribution networks short.

Experts have predicted that the global population will hit 9 billion by 2050. “To feed everyone,” a Monsanto Web page about improving agriculture declared, “we’ll need to double the amount of food we currently produce.” But according to a report released Wednesday by the Environmental Working Group, doubling the production of “meat, meat products, and animal feed” ignores the root causes of hunger and malnutrition.

“It’s not so much that 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,” Craig Cox, one of the report’s authors, wrote in an email. The danger is that “this ever present rhetoric about U.S. farmers going all out to feed a hungry world will misdirect opinion leaders and policy makers.” Asking farmers in wealthy industrialized countries to feed the hungry is impractical at best, perilous at worst. As Cox explained, “The danger also lies in the notion that we can solve hunger and malnutrition by exporting industrial agriculture systems to the developing world.” Driving farmers off their land in these nations isn’t the solution; the way to end hunger is to help farmers feed their own nations, he said.

As the EWG report notes, the majority of American agricultural exports are sold to high-income countries, while “just eight percent went to five countries rated medium” for development by the U.N. Top export destinations such as China, Indonesia, India, and Mexico do have millions of citizens suffering from malnutrition—though, as is the case in the United States, the population is a mix of those suffering from undernourishment and others suffering from obesity. “In China and Indonesia, the number of overweight or obese people is more than double the number who are undernourished, and 11 percent of India’s population is overweight or obese,” according to the report. These are all countries with “impressive rates of economic growth,” yet shifts toward a diet of fatty, sugary, and salty foods combined with a lack of domestic food-security programs has led to poor nutrition.

“U.S. agricultural exports to China, Indonesia, and Mexico do nothing to alleviate these problems and may actually contribute to the rise in the overweight and obese populations,” according to EWG’s report. American farmers could try to grow more produce or grain for human consumption to “feed the world,” but the majority of U.S. agricultural exports today are composed of meat, dairy, and animal feed.

Increasing overall food production will be necessary to feed 9 billion people, yet it’s not a burden the U.S. should bear alone—even if it can. “Small-scale farmers account for much of the developing world’s food output, yet many are themselves food insecure,” explained Gerald Bourke, a senior communications officer for the World Food Programme. “Their productivity and incomes must be increased, and their livelihoods thus rendered more sustainable.”

This is not to say that farmers aren’t important—only that ending hunger isn’t about growing more so much as getting the right food to the right people, and increasing exports to countries with high rates of hunger may not be the best way to do it.

Countries with food instability already have their own farmers. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example—where one in four people suffers from malnutrition—has the highest prevalence of hunger of any region in the world, according to the World Food Programme. Yet, over 60 percent of jobs are in or related to agriculture, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Increasing food supplies for these regions is only a small part of the battle against hunger. Instead, increasing development aid can help significantly by “improving undernourished populations’ access to food.” The same can be said of increasing overall economic growth, increasing income for women, and better education. “Such strategies are often complicated, expensive, and hard to implement, but are absolutely necessary for reducing undernourishment,” the authors of the EWG report explained.

U.S. farmers are filling a need, but it’s not the need of the poor and hungry. If we really want to feed the world, it’s going to take a lot more than U.S. farmers producing more corn, soy, and cattle.