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How Not to “Feed the World”

Tom Philpott
The debate over how to “feed the world” amid population growth and climate change often hinges on crop yields. The theory is that if we can squeeze as much crop as possible per acre of farmland, we’ll have abundant food for everyone. This idea dominates the marketing material of giant agrichemical firms like Monsanto. “In order to feed the world’s growing population, farmers must produce more food in the next fifty years than they have in the past 10,000 years combined,” proclaims the company’s website. “We are working to double yields in our core crops by 2030.” Such rhetoric is routinely echoed by policymakers like US Department of Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack.

But jacking up yields—even if Monsanto and its peers can accomplish that feat, which they haven’t so far—won’t solve the hunger problem on its own. The globe’s farms are already producing enough food to feed 12 billion people—twice the current population and a third again more than the peak of 9 billion expected to be reached in 2050. Yet at least 925 million people lack access to enough to eat. What causes hunger isn’t insufficient crop yields but rather people’s economic relationships to food: whether they have access to land to grow it, or sufficient income to buy it.

Unfortunately, rising food prices and competition for resources appear to be making the situation worse. Take the trend of rich-country investors buying or leasing huge, highly productive tracts of farmland in low-income countries, and exporting the resulting crops. In a scathing report on these “land grabs,” the global anti-hunger group Oxfam reports that an “area of land eight times the size of the UK” has been sold off in the past decade—a combined swath of land that “has the potential to feed a billion people,” or more than the 925 million who live in hunger. “[V]ery few if any of these land investments benefit local people or help to fight hunger,” Oxfam adds.

Investors in these deals aren’t agribiz companies like Monsanto, which just want to sell inputs like seeds and agrichemicals, not take on the risk of farming. Rather, they are US or European hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds from nations like China or Saudi Arabia, or companies like Iowa’s AgriSol, owned by GOP stalwart, large-scale hog farmer, Iowa university regent, and all-around charmer Bruce Rastetter, whom I wrote about here.

While some land grabs involve domestic elites taking land in low-income areas of their own countries, the more typical cases involve rich-country investors gobbling land in poor countries. According to an April 2012 analysis by the Land Matrix, cited by Oxfam, the average investor in these deals come from a country with a per capita GDP of $18,918, while the target countries’ per capita GDPs average $4,404—a more than five-fold disparity…
(10 October 2012)
Suggested by EB reader Luane Todd, who says:
Bart I think this is a valuable contribution to whole discussion about population, hunger and what needs doing that I have seen in a while. And I definitely think that plans to depopulate the planet are based on a kind of elitism that I find particularly obnoxious, especially when couched in the terms of food for all these unnecessary people and how feeding them is going to destroy our planet. I find Oxfam’s work to be more valuable than the amount of coverage they get for that work…probably because it has so many uncomfortable revelations about causes and effects. So I suggest we publish this on EB as soon as possible. The comments section at the end of the article is particularly revealing and valuable, I think.

The Oxfam report can be accessed here. -KS

These grassroots heroes are fighting for food democracy

Claire Thompson, Grist
Food sovereignty is a relatively new term, but it draws on a long tradition of human-rights activism and the struggle for social and economic justice. La Via Campesina, a global network of peasants, farmers, and indigenous people working to defend small-scale, sustainable agriculture, is widely credited with introducing the concept in 1996. The organization defines it as:

… the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. [Food sovereignty] develops a model of small scale sustainable production benefiting communities and their environment. It puts the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.

It’s not surprising, then, that over a decade later, La Via Campesina won the first annual Food Sovereignty Prize, an award recognizing grassroots groups fighting for a democratic food system. This year marks the fourth time the prize has been awarded, and the first time the ceremony, held in New York City on Oct. 10, will be open to the public.

The award originated at the grassroots just like the groups it honors. Siena Chrisman of WhyHunger, the organization hosting the prize, explains that the idea for it came about in 2009 when the nonprofit Community Food Security Coalition held its annual meeting (a gathering that draws several hundred people from around the progressive food world) in Des Moines, Iowa. It just so happened that the World Food Prize was being awarded in Des Moines the same weekend. The World Food Prize, Chrisman explains, “really focuses on the industrial agriculture model” — rewarding individuals who have made technological innovations in line with Norman Borlaug’s “green revolution,” which introduced the type of high-yield, disease-resistant crops often credited with both alleviating third-world hunger on a mass scale and ushering in the era of pesticide-reliant monocrops.

“We felt like we needed to have some kind of response,” Chrisman says. “The Food Sovereignty Prize is very focused on organizations and communities. We believe solutions to community problems come from the ground up.”…
(4 October 2012)

The year the grains failed: Why poorer countries are scheduling ‘food-free days’

Michael McCarthy, the Independent
World grain prices have risen so high that families in poorer countries are being forced to schedule “food-free days” each week, according to one of the leading experts on global agriculture.

The extreme rationing is an “an unprecedented manifestation of food stress,” according to Lester Brown, president of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, and the most respected environmental observer of food and agricultural trends.

While regional food shortages are far from uncommon, the sheer number of people in the developing world who can no longer afford to eat every day has appalled humanitarian workers.

“We have not seen this before, where a family systematically schedules days where they do not eat, when they know they can’t buy enough every day so they decide at the beginning of the week, this week we won’t eat on Wednesday or we won’t eat on Saturday,” Mr Brown said yesterday.

Quoting figures from a report commissioned by Save the Children, he said that foodless days were now a part of life for up to 24 per cent of families in India, 27 per cent in Nigeria, and 14 per cent in Peru.

The development was part of a long-term shift, he said, from a world food economy dominated by surpluses, to one dominated by scarcity…

Case study: ‘There’s little to sell, and what there is, is poor’

Jim Meadows is an arable farmer, with 900 acres of wheat, as well as rapeseed oil, peas and oats, in Warwickshire

“I can never remember it being this bad. In 1976, it was wet in the autumn, in 1968 too – and I do remember that far back. This time it started out wet in the spring and carried on wet. We haven’t seen yields this low since the Seventies and then we were working at a much lower capacity.

“By the end of July we knew it was going to be bad. There is nothing you can do about it and I am an optimist – you’re going to have bad years and you have to just get on. But there are some people in the farming community feeling really down. Things were looking so rosy in April and many farmers I know negotiated new rents with their landlords on the expectation of a decent harvest. Many people are in trouble now, because there’s so little to sell and what there is, is of such poor quality it won’t fetch a good price….
(4 October 2012)

Global Grain Production at Record High Despite Extreme Climatic Events

Danielle Nierenberg and Katie Spoden
Global grain production is expected to reach a record high of 2.4 billion tons in 2012, an increase of 1 percent from 2011 levels, according to new research conducted by the Nourishing the Planet project for our Vital Signs Online service. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the production of grain for animal feed is growing the fastest—a 2.1 percent increase from 2011. Grain for direct human consumption grew 1.1 percent from 2011.

In 2011, the amount of grain used for food totaled 571 million tons, with India consuming 89 million tons, China 87 million tons, and the United States 28 million tons, according to the International Grains Council. The world relies heavily on wheat, maize (corn), and rice for daily sustenance: of the 50,000 edible plants in the world, these three grains account for two-thirds of global food energy intake. Grains provide the majority of calories in diets worldwide, ranging from a 23 percent share in the United States to 60 percent in Asia and 62 percent in North Africa.

Maize production in the United States—the largest producer—was expected to reach a record 345 million tons in 2012; however, drought in the Great Plains has altered this estimate severely. Maize yields for the 2012–13 growing season are now expected to decrease 13 percent from 2011 production, for a total production of 274.3 million tons.

The reliance on grain crops for food security is threatened by more-extreme climatic events, especially droughts and floods. According to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction, the World Food Programme, and Oxfam International, some 375 million people will be affected by climate change-related disasters by 2015. By 2050, the FAO notes, 10–20 percent more people will be subject to hunger based on the changing climate’s effects on agriculture, and 24 million more children are expected to be malnourished—21 percent more than if there were no climate change.

The relationship between food security, grain production, and climate change is especially important in 2012. The recent drought affecting the United States and the rest of the world show the need to reduce price volatility, move away from fossil fuel–based agriculture, and recognize the importance of women farmers to increase resilience to climate change.

The drought taking place in the Midwest and Great Plains of the United States is considered the country’s worst in 50 years, coming close to matching the late-1930s Dust Bowl. The drought is expected to cost many billions of dollars and could top the list as one of the most expensive weather-related disasters in U.S. history. The global market will be most affected by this drought, as so much of the developing world relies on U.S. corn and soybean production. Food prices have already begun to increase due to lower yields, and price fluctuations will inevitably affect food security around the globe.

Further highlights from the report:

The FAO expects global maize production to increase 4.1 percent from 2011, reaching an estimated 916 million tons in 2012.

Global rice production achieved an all-time high of 480 million tons in 2011, a 2.6 percent increase from 2010.

World wheat production is projected to drop to 675.1 million tons in 2012, down 3.6 percent from 2011, with the largest declines in feed and biofuel utilization.

Since 1961, grain production has increased 269 percent and grain yield has increased 157 percent, while the grain harvest area has increased only 25 percent. This is due largely to the Green Revolution and the introduction of high-yielding grain varieties…
(11 October 2012)
The original report is here behind a paywall. -KS

Cash-strapped farmers feed candy to cows

Aaron Smith,CNNMoney
attle farmers struggling with record corn prices are feeding their cows candy instead.
That’s right, candy. Cows are being fed chocolate bars, gummy worms, ice cream sprinkles, marshmallows, bits of hard candy and even powdered hot chocolate mix, according to cattle farmers, bovine nutritionists and commodities dealers.

“It has been a practice going on for decades and is a very good way to for producers to reduce feed cost, and to provide less expensive food for consumers,” said Ki Fanning, a livestock nutritionist with Great Plains Livestock Consulting, Inc. in Eagle, Neb.

Feeding candy to cows has become a more popular practice in tandem with the rising price of corn, which has doubled since 2009, fueled by government-subsidized demand for ethanol and this year’s drought. Thrifty and resourceful farmers are tapping into the obscure market for cast-off food ingredients. Cut-rate byproducts of dubious value for human consumption seem to make fine fodder for cows. While corn goes for about $315 a ton, ice-cream sprinkles can be had for as little as $160 a ton.

“As the price of corn has climbed, farmers either sold off their pigs and cattle, or they found alternative feeds,” said Mike Yoder, a dairy farmer in Middlebury, Ind. He feeds his 400 cows bits of candy, hot chocolate mix, crumbled cookies, breakfast cereal, trail mix, dried cranberries, orange peelings and ice cream sprinkles, which are blended into more traditional forms of feed, like hay.

The farmer said that he goes over the feed menu every couple of weeks with a livestock nutritionist who advised him to cap the candy at 3% of a cow’s diet. He said that the sugar in ice cream sprinkles seems to increase milk production by three pounds per cow per day…
(4 October 2012)

Biofuel policy change strands EU farmers

Staff, Deutsche Welle
After the European Union’s recent change of policy on biofuels, many farmers see their livelihood threatened. In Austria, some farmers are now looking at alternative ways to produce biofuels without using food crops.

A field of maize folds under the blades of a harvester on a farm in Lower Austria. Some of this crop is destined for our fuel tanks as ethanol. Johannes Danner drives the machine but if the new European Commission plan is adopted there’ll be no subsidies and, perhaps, no demand for his golden corn.
The reason: the European Commission is changing its policy on crop-based biofuels. It’s dropping its ten percent target for ethanol content in automotive fuels and it will end subsidies for crop based biofuels in 2020.

A new EU policy on biofuels has hit the bloc’s farmers hard
It seems that the change of policy has come about due to rising public criticism of the biofuels programme in Europe. Critics argue that the industry is responsible for rising food prices as agricultural land is turned over to fuel production. And they doubt the emission reducing benefits of crop-based fuels. The decision is a blow to a rapidly growing European biofuels industry.

“We are in an area here where there is always excess production and not everything is needed for the food industry,” explains Johannes Danner, who has worked on his family’s farm for years.

Food vs Fuel
Fuel from Johannes’ farm winds up at fuel stations from Agrana. The company has built a new 150 million euro plant largely on the expectation that demand for biofuel made from maize, wheat and other food crops will continue to grow. Agrana boss Johann Marihart is disappointed by the EU’s change of heart.

“The targets to achieve 10% by 2020 were not so ambitious. They’re achievable via European excess production,” Marihart told DW. He adds that it is a mistake for longterm targets to be ignored as a result of political pressure…
(10 October 2012)

Vote for the Dinner Party

Michael Pollan, New York Times

One of the more interesting things we will learn on Nov. 6 is whether or not there is a “food movement” in America worthy of the name — that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system. People like me throw the term around loosely, partly because we sense the gathering of such a force, and partly (to be honest) to help wish it into being by sheer dint of repetition. Clearly there is growing sentiment in favor of reforming American agriculture and interest in questions about where our food comes from and how it was produced. And certainly we can see an alternative food economy rising around us: local and organic agriculture is growing far faster than the food market as a whole. But a market and a sentiment are not quite the same thing as a political movement — something capable of frightening politicians and propelling its concerns onto the national agenda.

California’s Proposition 37, which would require that genetically modified (G.M.) foods carry a label, has the potential to do just that — to change the politics of food not just in California but nationally too. Now, there is much that’s wrong with California’s notorious initiative process: it is an awkward, usually sloppy way to make law. Yet for better or worse, it has served as a last- or first-ditch way for issues that politicians aren’t yet ready to touch — whether the tax rebellion of the 1970s (Prop 13) or medical marijuana in the 1990s (Prop 215) — to win a hearing and a vote and then go on to change the political conversation across the country.

What is at stake this time around is not just the fate of genetically modified crops but the public’s confidence in the industrial food chain. That system is being challenged on a great many fronts — indeed, seemingly everywhere but in Washington. Around the country, dozens of proposals to tax and regulate soda have put the beverage industry on the defensive, forcing it to play a very expensive (and thus far successful) game of Whac-A-Mole. The meat industry is getting it from all sides: animal rights advocates seeking to expose its brutality; public-health advocates campaigning against antibiotics in animal feed; environmentalists highlighting factory farming’s contribution to climate change.

Big Food is also feeling beleaguered by its increasingly skeptical and skittish consumers. Earlier this year the industry was rocked when a blogger in Houston started an online petition to ban the use of “pink slime” in the hamburger served in the federal school-lunch program. Pink slime — so-called by a U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist — is a kind of industrial-strength hamburger helper made from a purée of slaughterhouse scraps treated with ammonia. We have apparently been ingesting this material for years in hamburger patties, but when word got out, the eating public went ballistic. Within days, the U.S.D.A. allowed schools to drop the product, and several supermarket chains stopped carrying it, shuttering several of the plants that produce it. Shortly after this episode, I received a panicky phone call from someone in the food industry, a buyer for one of the big food-service companies. After venting about the “irrationality” of the American consumer, he then demanded to know: “Who’s going to be hit next? It could be any of us.”

So it appears the loss of confidence is mutual: the food industry no longer trusts us, either, which is one reason a label on genetically modified food is so terrifying: we might react “irrationally” and decline to buy it. To win back this restive public, Big Food recently began a multimillion-dollar public-relations campaign, featuring public “food dialogues,” aimed at restoring our faith in the production methods on which industrial agriculture depends, including pharmaceuticals used to keep animals healthy and speed their growth; pesticides and genetically modified seeds; and concentrated animal feeding operations. The industry has never liked to talk about these practices — which is to say, about how the food we eat is actually produced — but it apparently came to the conclusion that it is better off telling the story itself rather than letting its critics do it…
(10 October 2012)