“American farmers feed the world” is a phrase I have heard consistently since getting into agriculture, and despite the positive tone, it makes me feel uneasy.
One might think that the expression shows pride in what American farmers do, but that is not often the context in which it is used. American farmers certainly have a lot to take pride in, but there is more to this saying and others like it.
Personally, I have had this said to me when I mention concerns about environmental problems caused by US agriculture. It is used to shut down my arguments that we need to do better. Some say we need to keep going in directions that have been shown to be destructive to human health and the environment because “that’s how we feed people!”
Recently, I have found that there are quite a lot of others questioning this as well. Many have noted that this rhetoric is used for lobbying by large agricultural conglomerates and finance companies to obscure chemical deregulation and questionable government policy.
An article posted on Civil Eats says, “…to claim that U.S. farmers and agribusinesses must go all-out to feed the world—regardless of the consequences to human health and the environment—amounts to wrapping a business opportunity in the cloak of moral necessity… And this ‘moral imperative’ to feed the world also serves as a rationale for maintaining the status quo in U.S. farm policy.”
This rhetoric has been behind many legal changes that have allowed for the financialization of the agriculture industry that has pushed small farmers out of the industry, pesticide and herbicide deregulation, and more. What is also interesting is that the saying is not really true.
According to Our World in Data, the US produces about 35% of the world’s corn and 30% of the world’s soybeans. But where does that go?
About 40% of American corn gets turned into ethanol to be mixed with gasoline. While this is usually hailed as an environmentally friendly alternative to gas, the amount of gasoline, agricultural chemicals, poor soil management, and land used to produce it makes it highly contested whether ethanol has a reduced carbon footprint.
Another 30% of US corn goes to livestock feed, along with most US-grown soybeans. This statistic is often where the phrase “America feeds the world” originates from.
According to economist Christopher Barrett, “Chinese pigs are fed with cheap soybean meal grown in the US and Brazil, providing millions of Chinese people with more protein, so soybean farmers can be justified in saying they help feed the world. But the opposite is true as well because the big crops exported by America don’t provide the nutrition that people need most. Driving down corn prices can feed the world but does little for nutrition problems.”
Various researchers theorize that US food exports have increased obesity globally while not impacting nutrition due to exporting a lot of corn-based food high in fat, oil, and sugar.
If we were focused on caloric density and nutrition needed for feeding people on a wide scale, we would not put so much into livestock or corn. That is not to say we should not be producing these things, but that it is not an ideal route if tackling hunger and nutrition is a genuine concern.
According to environmental scientist Jonathan Foley, if just feeding people is the goal, corn-fed animals are inefficient. “The average Iowa cornfield has the potential to deliver more than 15 million calories per acre each year (14 people per acre with 3,000 calorie per day diet), but with current allocations of corn to ethanol and animal production, we end up with 3 million calories of food per acre. This is lower than the average delivery of calories from farms in Bangladesh, Egypt, and Vietnam.”
Additionally, the US does not even export to the majority of the world.
A review in Farm Progress states, “Agricultural exports from the U.S. chiefly meet the demand for more meat and more diverse diets from already affluent countries, or those with growing personal wealth.”
Less than 1% of US food exports go to the 19 most undernourished countries, and about 86% of US food exports go to highly developed nations with low hunger rates.
In the past 30 years, research has illustrated that small and medium-scale farms provide 3/4 of the world’s nutritious food, rather than large-scale farms that tend to come to mind. According to David Montgomery, small, diversified farms produce up to twice as much food per acre than industrial row crop farms, though often sacrificing some mechanization and requiring more labor. Worldwide, these types of farms provide most people with their day-to-day food and are on average only about two acres in size.
While there is more to account for than can be fit in a short article, I think there are plenty of reasons to question popular sayings used in agriculture. Next time you hear them, think about the context they are in. When these slogans are used, what is really the intent behind them? Who is being benefited, and what is being hidden when they are repeated? You are likely to find that it is not most people working in agriculture that benefit.