We’re pretty big fans of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Margaret Mellon, especially after reading her excellent takedown of the catchphrase “Feed the world”:
“It seems to come up with depressing regularity to justify, among other things, pesticides, industrial-scale monoculture, and biotechnology, all of which we must embrace—all together now—to feed the world. What gets under my skin is that the phrase is so often used by advocates of high-input American corn and soybeans, who otherwise seem not terribly concerned about problems of hungry people or farmers in developing countries.”
Oh, it gets better, Billy Dee Williams.
Mellon goes on to chide Farmers Feeding the World for its rather solipsistic goal of rallying “American agriculture for the war against hunger.” Perhaps Bread for the World, with its focus on “agricultural development for small-scale producers and women, improving nutrition for women and young children, and ensuring that efforts are ”country-led” has a better shot at actually putting a dent in world hunger.
Another prominent international anti-hunger initiative, Feed the Future, and a recent United Nations report both emphasize a need to help developing countries grow their own agricultural sectors and food systems. “Feeding the world” doesn’t come up in any of these program descriptions. So why is that meaningful?
“…the phrase conflates the important issues of food production and hunger alleviation. It implies that producing corn and soybeans is the equivalent of putting food into the mouths of hungry people. But there is no direct connection between U.S. corn and soy production and ending hunger elsewhere (or for that matter in the US). In fact, the truth is that high production in the U.S. can depress world grain prices and throw developing country farmers off the land.”
You are crazy for this one, Margaret Mellon! But wait, she’s not done yet:
Despite decades of surplus commodity crop production, world hunger has been, and remains, an acute problem. In its recent report, FAO estimates that 868 million people (12.5% of the world population) are undernourished in terms of energy intake.
Simply increasing crop production in the U.S. won’t help feed those people because insufficient production—and certainly insufficient production in the developed world—is not the heart of the problem. Many issues beyond production need to be addressed and most of the effort needs to be directed to the developing world. Tackling issues like infrastructure, transport, storage, prices, and the role of women in an integrated way, as both the FAO and the Feed the Future initiatives do, is the only serious approach to the world hunger problem.
U.S. export policy should be addressed on its own terms, primarily as an economic issue rather than a humanitarian enterprise. Hungry people should not be the poster-children for the interests of the well-fed.
OH SNAP. OOOOOOOH SNAP. These are all really great points, but what’s the takeaway?
People who care most about developing country agriculture don’t use the phrase “feeding the world.” Those interested in corn and soybean exports should drop it as well.
If we need a catchphrase for world hunger issues, we could consider “helping the world feed itself.” I know, it doesn’t exactly sing, but it will help us focus on genuine solutions to vital global problems.
Margaret Mellon, you had us at “depressing regularity.”