Clearing The Air & Knocking Down Straw Men, Part I: The Production Myth

I am incredibly tired of hearing people talk about how we need GMO crops to “feed the world,” and of being told I am a “bleeding heart” or “hippie idealist” because I am “more concerned with those damn animals” than “feeding the world.” So, this is specifically addressed to all those folks who clearly have no  idea what the hell they are talking about when they espouse The Production Myth.

What is The Production Myth?

It’s the idea that if we just keep producing more food, we’ll feed everyone in the world. It’s kind of like magic, really, or wishes when you were 4 years old: you wanted it to be, so be it must. Except that it’s wrong, and it’s time to grow up and face reality. Reality is that the world is not as simple as you want it to be, and it’s definitely not as simple as that guy trying to sell you fertilizer wants you to believe it is.

Let’s Start With The Truth

News flash: The world already produces enough food to feed the world. The problem is not production, despite what your local Monsanto representative keeps telling you.

Why Production Isn’t the Problem:

Have you *ever* walked into a supermarket and not found food there? Do you know that Americans throw out 20%  of the food we produce, according to the USDA, ( you’ll have to find that yourself because I only have it in paper at the moment, not as a link)? According to the New York Times, it’s 27%.  Yet another study by the University of Arizona puts it at HALF the food ready for harvest that is tossed away, unused. Regardless of the exact figure, I think we can all agree, it’s a lot.

Treating animals in a basic humane manner and feeding them the food they were intended to eat would not take food out of the mouths of starving children, because we already produce more than enough to feed these children. We don’t need more food, and especially not more meat, to feed the world:

From The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day (FAO 2002, p.9).  The principal problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food.”

Worth noting: The overwhelming majority of Americans, and indeed people worldwide, do not need anything near 2,720 calories daily. The daily average is, per the USDA, 2,000; and, most nutrition experts agree that that is too high for much of the population.

So, What Is The Problem?

If production isn’t our problem, then what is? Unfortunately, there’s no one thing, and anyone who tells you there is a magic bullet is selling something (probably RoundUp Ready seeds, despite research now showing RoundUp is almost certainly linked to birth defects). There’s many problems: politics, transportation, poverty, government subsidies, consumerism…the list goes on. I can’t cover them all in the scope of a blog, but I will try and make a good start.

What I am not covering here is the fact that it’s also been proven that organic production methods can not only yield as well or better than the “conventional” farming going on, but that organic methods actually improve yield over time by leaving the soil intact (or actually improving it). Or that, in the long run (and it’s not a very long run, btw), conventional farming methods will actually decrease yield as the environment becomes more toxic, less fertile, and less able to produce because of it. Why am I not going into all that here? Because I am working on a Part 2 dealing with all that. So, stay tuned.

What The Problems Really Are:

Transportation, storage, and distribution. I don’t care how many peaches you produce, how much GE salmon you farm, how many cattle are shoved onto that feed lot, there’s no amount of food that suddenly overrides these issues.  Until and unless there’s a distribution system for countries with starving inhabitants, more food just means more waste in a country that already wastes 1/4 to 1/2 it’s food. Many foods simply do not ship or store well, including meat and produce (face it, most third world countries in which we’d be trying to eradicate hunger probably don’t have a freezer available to their poor) . Producing more isn’t going to change that these foods spoil, or the time it takes them to do so.

What we can get to other countries fairly easily is hard grain: wheat, corn, etc. Guess what we’re doing with it instead? Making it into things like  HFCS (a product with zero nutrient value) and feeding it to cows and chickens on industrial farms (the products of which can’t easily be transported and distributed to other countries where all those starving people are, right?). Want to feed the world? Stop eating conventional, corn-fed poultry and beef and switch to pastured, grass fed, the send the resulting grain surplus to Ethiopia, China, or Mexico.

“Wait, why can’t we get food to all those starving people” you ask? ” We have boats and trains and planes!” Yes, we do;  but, there are no Walmarts, Sam’s Clubs, or Kroger in the heart of, say, Zimbabwe. There is no company shipping this stuff for free, or a place to store it for free, let alone a way to distribute it. And even if they did, most of the people starving are also people living in poverty; so, unless farmers and corporations are going to donate all the products and live at a loss, exactly how are these starving people going to pay for their fruit and meat? Which bring us to…

Poverty. Okay, say we find a way to get commercial meat to a village somewhere in Zimbabwe, someone funds a supermarket in a needy area, stocks it with goods, and hires employees to distribute those goods. Right. Does anyone honestly believe that either of these women  is saying “Oh, if only there was a supermarket nearby, I could get some hamburger for dinner!”

No. Even if that supermarket existed, these people almost certainly cannot afford to spend money on food, no matter how cheap it is.  Approximately one half, or almost 3 BILLION, people live in poverty.  Want more proof production isn’t the problem? Look at our own country. We have people living in poverty right here who cannot afford to eat fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Does the fact that all of these items exist, in abundance, on store shelves change this? No. People still go hungry.  In a country that produces twice as many calories per day as our country needs, wouldn’t it follow that if production was what was needed to solve hunger, then no American would be hungry?

Simple Economics: What happens when we start overproducing items to the point that even the poorest of the poor can afford them (which, by the way, isn’t happening–meat prices have been rising, as have most other prices, despite reported production increases)? The only way production addresses the problem of hunger could theoretically be at this point, if it meant a drop in prices. To drop prices enough to feed those living in most poor countries of the world by production alone, however, farmers would have to grow food at little profit or an outright loss.  Our farmers can no longer make money. Farming, except with heavy subsidies, becomes unsustainable as a way to make a living. No farmers = no food. What then? Government take over? More government subsidies to huge corporations who are concerned not with feeding the world, but with the bottom line?

I recently had a former farm boy (whose family still owns their large conventional farm) tell me that GMO crops and serious pesticides and herbicides were necessary to “feed the world,” because we need more production or our growing population would starve, and that I was just an hippie idealist. My answer to this is: So, you’re hoping your dad’s going to go hungry, or sell the farm to huge corporate agriculture because they’re the only ones who can exist on a margin that thin, or that the government will step in and start doling out more subsidies?  Or do you somehow think that producing more food is magically going to make the starving child in Zimbabwe afford to be able to pay enough for your product that you can live on the profits? That the person shipping your goods isn’t going to want to get paid so that you can have the profit? That the supermarket who would be potentially selling this additional product would do so at no profit, so you can continue to exist as a farmer?

And they call me an idealist?

He didn’t get it, but those are the answers to the “we need more production to feed the world!” Unless, of course, you want to talk about making food in the areas where people are starving. Oh, wait, we already do that here in the US, and we still have people going hungry.

Consumerism and Bad Resource Management: Americans do not need more meat. Not only do we already throw away a vast quantity of it, but we also eat two to four times more of it than we should. The grain used to feed all this beef could be used to feed 800 million people, and that’s just grain from the US.   From the same Cornell news: “With only grass-fed livestock, individual Americans would still get more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of meat and dairy protein, according to Pimentel’s report, “Livestock Production: Energy Inputs and the Environment.”

Look, I am not a vegetarian. Just read my blog and it will be strikingly clear that we eat meat and like it. What we don’t eat is grain-fed meat. There’s no reason to do so.  We can eat a good, healthy amount of meat that was raised just fine on grass, in pasture.  If Americans cut their meat consumption, like they should for many reasons from health to environmental responsibility, and reallocated that grain to feeding the world, we’d be half way to “feeding the world,” while feeding our food animals what they’re supposed to be eating.

This isn’t hippie liberalism, it’s pragmatic resource allocation. I am not arguing we shouldn’t have any grain-fed beef;  but, I am saying that the US produces meat in excess that boggles the mind already. Simple math tells us that “increasing production” of this high-energy-input food isn’t the way to solve world hunger. Producing more grain to feed cows in the name of “feeding the world” is just ridiculous if for no other reason than it can’t work and it’s incredibly inefficient. Which brings us to…

Government Subsidies. From the EPA:  “According to the National Corn Growers Association, about eighty percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock, poultry, and fish production.” And: “Over 30 million tons of soybean meal are consumed as livestock feed in a year.” This is human-grade grain we’re talking about.

Why do we feed our cattle and poultry corn and soy? Because it’s cheap. Unfortunately, it’s artificially cheap. Cattle aren’t good converters of corn into meat, it’s a waste of resources. But, it’s cheap. Land that could grow other, more diverse crops as food for humans instead grows corn and soy for cattle, and every pound of of these fed to cattle, hogs, and poultry (poultry being the most efficient converter) loses caloric value. Morals, environmental issues, high-horses, and ideals aside, this is just an obviously poor use of the land from a strictly calories-per-acre standpoint. But, crops like fruits and vegetables aren’t subsidized, so there’s less incentive to grow them.

We can’t feed the world with our current system. Obviously, or we’d be doing it.  It’s a logical fallacy to say that the way to solve world hunger is to produce more food, when we already produce enough food to feed the world and people are still starving to death by the millions.

PART II: Clearing the Air and Knocking Down Straw Men, The Organic Wars


5 responses to “Clearing The Air & Knocking Down Straw Men, Part I: The Production Myth

  • jen

    brilliant post! not that i am surprised people ignore logic in today’s day & age, but how people can be totally unconcerned with their health and quite literally the future of our earth astounds me. can’t wait for post 2!

  • shwankie

    Thanks, Jen! I agree. It’s also amazing how people just take the word of corporate salespeople, big ag mouthpieces, etc., without every questioning their motives. It’s just so…weird!

    I am hoping to have post 2 up by next Tuesday, so swing back through!

  • Karen

    Incredibly written–to the point and a slap in the face to all those who think more food will end the problem of starvation! THanks.

    • shwankie

      Karen, thank you for reading, and for the compliment. It’s startling how many people believe all we need to end hunger is more food!

  • The Moderate Foodie Activist: Getting to Know Me « Eclectic Edibles.

    […] how we can produce just as much, when what we really need it to produce less and in a better way. As I’ve said before, and as the WHO agrees, we already produce substantially more food that the world needs, and we […]

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