"My Mother Told Me to Eat All My Dinner" and the Global Food Market

May 11, 2012 | 12:35 pm
Doug Boucher
Former contributor

When I was young, my mother used to tell me to eat all my dinner and would remind me that there were hungry children who would be happy to have what I was leaving on my plate. I’m sure lots of you heard the same thing. And if you were like me, it may have been the first time you actually doubted your parents’ wisdom, since it was obvious that whether I cleaned my plate or not, there was no way that the food would  go to those hungry children. It would end up in the garbage, or at best in a plastic container for me to eat the next day. But it certainly wouldn’t feed the hungry.

An unclean plate. Photo: doc(q)man on Flickr

You probably had a similar experience, although exactly where those hungry children were supposed to live likely has changed over the decades. For me in the fifties I think they were in India; my grandfather used to talk about “the starving Armenians”; my own children remember hearing about famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, and for my parents’ generation, brought up in Europe in the Depression, they could have been just about anywhere.  And I suspect that children have reacted with the same skepticism for a long, long time, knowing that their eating all their dinner would do nothing to prevent starvation.

But actually, the idea underlying that perennial parental message has gotten stronger  in recent years. It’s not that there have been amazing technological advances in food teleportation, but the global food system has changed in a way that does link the plates of children around the world a bit more closely. The kids are still all right, but maybe the parents are right too.

Here’s why. The share of food production that is traded internationally has become a larger and larger share of total food production, particularly for meat, feed grains and oilseeds. Many of our basic foodstuffs — corn from the U.S., soy from the Amazon and palm oil from southeast Asia — are shipped around the world in increasingly large quantities. This has created a global world food market, in which consumption in one country affects prices in all the others.

Thus, when 30% of the U.S. corn crop goes into ethanol, it pushes prices upward and makes tortillas more expensive in Mexico. And when Americans eat 225 pounds of meat annually, it creates demand for corn, soy and other feeds, pulling up their prices as well as those of meat all around the world.

This isn’t anything complicated; it’s what economists have been explaining about supply and demand for centuries. It’s just that now, what matters is global supply and demand.

In this way, children’s dinner plates all around the planet are connected by the global food market. What we eat is part of the total demand for food that makes it cheaper or more expensive for other parents in other countries to give their kids three square meals a day.

Now, I don’t see this as reason to feel guilty, and as I’ve said in a previous post, I don’t think guilt is a very useful motivation for deciding what to eat. Anyhow, my mother’s message wasn’t that I should feel guilty about starving children elsewhere. It was that I was fortunate to be well-fed and shouldn’t be wasteful, about food or anything else. A valuable lesson to remember as we consider our country’s food policies. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!