Why 'Feed the World!' is a Broken Mantra

July 19, 2016 12:00 PM
World ripples

It is hard to attend a farm meeting of any sort where you are not accosted by some exhortation to “feed the world!” This is followed by the supposedly clinching demographic argument of “X billon mouths to feed by 20XX!” I have two modest problems with this tiresome, self-serving call to action.

First, nobody cares. The appeal to feed the world doesn’t resonate with either farmers or the public anymore. It might be simply past its due date or, in my opinion, it has slowly dawned on many of us that growing more GMO corn in the U.S. is not the answer to every problem, even this one. 

One reason is grain is not food—it’s an ingredient. It is also now clear the new billions we are called to feed are almost entirely very poor billions. Worse still, there are no good economic scenarios showing how they will become even modestly affluent consumers. 

Different Priorities Needed. Second, and more importantly, while it’s true farmers feed the world, it is more accurate to say, “The world’s farmers feed the world.” Given that realization, if you step back and try to solve the world hunger problem from a perspective of, say, an engineer you might come up with different priorities such as:

1. Achieve peace and stability. Famines do not occur in functioning democracies, especially if there are even rudimentary markets. To lower hunger, the best first step is to stop killing people.

2. Enact property rights. Once the guns are silent, nothing spurs agricultural productivity and economic activity as much as unlocking latent capital by private ownership of land and other capital.

3. Raise the lowest yields first. Boosting U.S. corn yields by 10 bushels per acre is considerably harder than doubling subsistent farm yields. It’s becoming apparent that trying to concentrate food production where it is already very intense has skyrocketing marginal costs. As happened with CAFOs, once we factor inputs and environmental impact into the equation, we might be at the upper limit of what we can do with crops unless we find ways to become drastically more efficient in fertilizers and pesticides. 

4. Respect how geography and demography overlap. Virtually all of the touted population growth worldwide will happen in Africa. Nigeria will replace the U.S. as the third-largest nation by 2050, for example. Nigerians will not be a massive market for $6 corn, especially with their oil-dependent economy.

5. Prepare for alternative development. Africa is skipping straight to solar-battery gridless power and wireless communications. There might be fewer similarities between their food systems and ours, requiring new technology and infrastructure.

6. Plan for premature deindustrialization. Developing nations will not emulate the Europe or the U.S. of the 19th century, when subsistent farmers left the land to work for higher wages in factories, maturing into an economy more dependent on service sector jobs as manufacturing followed cheaper labor. The period of income-lifting growth through manufacturing is now briefer, peaking far more quickly because of worldwide competition and free-flowing capital. China already is shifting to a service economy as automation hits low-skilled factory jobs. 

Seek Global Solutions. Above all, American farmers don’t really need Mao-like calls to greater output. We have something called a market that works much better. At the same time, it is both presumptuous and preposterous to assume we alone will meet this challenge. These strident calls seem just a tad ludicrous in the face of perennial commodity gluts. While we all know production problems can cause some temporary rationing, modern history has shown political systems to be the greatest threat to world food problems.

The safest prediction I can offer is: In 20XX, when the world has X billion people, there will be 1XX% of needed food produced. And too much hunger.  

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Spell Check

Buckingham, IL
7/27/2016 11:51 AM

  Nowdays farmers feed the highest bidder. They don't care who lives or starves. Only themselves.

Cwdar, IA
7/19/2016 08:48 PM

  If the world needs fed than at least pay me a good wage to do it.

Clint Cramton
Tescott , KS
7/19/2016 07:10 PM

  Never commented on any of these before but felt compelled to on this one. John is dead on this time I couldn't agree more well done.


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