Food or fuel: What do you believe in?

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Some people believe in tillage, others in no-till. Some people believe in planning; others in fate.

Ask an American farmer if he believes a big part of his destiny includes feeding the world and he’ll likely say, “Yep.” The answer is quick and sincere because somewhere in every farmer and rancher’s makeup is a “feed the world” gene.

Genetic

Our fathers probably picked it up back in the 1970s. They passed it to us and now its just part of our DNA. But believe as we may, the numbers — here, there, everywhere — continue to conspire against us.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the world has never produced more food, fed more people and, simultaneously, never had so many hungry people.

Recent FAO data shows that about 13 percent of the world’s population, or nearly 1 billion people, now live in chronic hunger. In 1981 the percentage was higher, 21, but the number was 150 million lower.

Factor

Part of the problem is math. The world’s people simply out-reproduce what the world’s farmers and ranchers increasingly produce. If forecasts prove accurate, however, birth rates will decline and global population will peak near 9 billion in 2050.

That suggests global hunger will peak, hopefully, in the next 40 years, too. It also suggests that global hunger has a life of its own.

Sure, we send the world massive tonnages of grains, red meat, poultry and other foodstuffs; record dollar amounts, in fact, in 2011. But very tiny amounts of U.S. food exports are sent to hungry nations.

Indeed, explains a new report from the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, in 2009 “72 percent of all U.S. corn exports went to the top five export destinations” — Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan and Egypt — “while only 9 percent went to the 70 nations designated by the United Nations FAO as Low-income Food Deficient.”

The story is similar in soybeans: “In 2009, more than half of U.S. soybean exports went to China. After China, the largest export destinations … were Mexico, Japan and the European Union. LIFD (food deficient nations) received only 1 percent of the total.” (A link to the IATP report is posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.)

Why?

Neither fact is an indictment of U.S. farmers. Each, however, is a direct consequence of U.S. farm policy. While we may believe our destiny includes feeding the world’s hungry, farm bills are directed toward selling food to the world’s wealthy. And that makes perfect sense because you can’t sell corn or wheat or beef or pork to people who have no money.

But government policy plays a hand, too.

“While corn production rose 28 percent from 2000-2009,” Julia Olmstead writes in the IATP report, corn “exports only increased 2 percent over the same period, mainly due to increased demand for corn for ethanol production.”

Choices

As a nation we made policy choices that directed corn to be planted for fuel on many acres once planted for food.

“From 1999 to 2009,” Olmstead writes, “the number of acres of wheat (sown) declined by 6 percent, rice by 13 percent and peanuts by a startling 27 percent.”

All are “crops consumed directly by humans,” she adds. Kinda’ tough to feed the world if you’re fueling Escalades and Range Rovers. Moreover, those choices continue to drive tomorrow’s farm policy.

Just last month producers of crops that lost acres to corn and ethanol in the last decade asked the writers of the 2012 farm bill to sweeten their federal protections — better target prices, better crop insurance — to stave off corn’s acreage raids.

While that policy effort failed when the Super Committee effort failed, the requests did not go unheeded. Rice, like ethanol, has its share of believers in Congress.

You pick

So, what do you believe in — feeding the world or driving to the mailbox? Congress, and a billion or so hungry people around the world, want to know.

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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