Let’s Drop “Feed The World”: A Plea To Move Beyond an Unhelpful Phrase

, sr. scientist emeritus, Food & Environment | August 30, 2013, 9:19 am EDT
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After years of participation in public discussions about agriculture, I’ve developed something of an allergy to the catchphrase “feed the world.”

It seems to come up with depressing regularity to justify, among other things, pesticides, industrial-scale monoculture, and biotechnology, all of which we must embrace—all together now—to feed the world. What gets under my skin is that the phrase is so often used by advocates of high-input American corn and soybeans, who otherwise seem not terribly concerned about problems of hungry people or farmers in developing countries.

“Let’s help the world feed itself.” Photo courtesy of AsiaSociety.org.

A recent example is Farmers Feeding the World, an industry-wide campaign that “educates the general public about U.S. agriculture’s role in feeding a hungry world.” The fact that the campaign funnels money into worthy organizations doesn’t obscure its focus on “the unique interests of people and organizations aligned with U.S. agriculture.”

But feeding the world doesn’t have much currency among those dedicated full-time to fighting hunger.

The hunger organization, Bread for the World, talks not of how U.S. agriculture will feed the world, but of agricultural development for small-scale producers and women, improving nutrition for women and young children, and ensuring that efforts are “country-led”—meaning the communities, constituencies, and countries affected by hunger are setting priorities.

The ambitious U.S. initiative called Feed the Future does not use the phrase either but instead talks about “supporting countries in developing their own agricultural sectors to generate opportunities for economic growth that can help reduce poverty and hunger.”

Likewise, the recent Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ (FAO) report on world agriculture and malnutrition, The State of Food and Agriculture: Food Systems for Better Nutrition, doesn’t use the term. FAO would eradicate malnutrition by integrating agriculture into local and regional food systems, “from inputs and production, through processing, storage, transport, and retailing, to consumption.”

Maybe the phrase is falling from favor. I, for one, would welcome its retirement.

The term has enjoyed a long run. It gets almost 2 billion hits when Googled. Some of those hits relate to Bob Geldof’s 1984 Band-Aid concert, but most are about U.S. crops—more precisely, the export crops soybean and corn. The phrase got a big boost in the 1970s when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz used it to advocate for fence-row-to-fence-row agriculture. He knew that new uses and increased exports would be necessary to absorb all that production without lowering prices. “Feed the world” became a rallying cry for export-oriented agricultural policy. (It still is despite the fact that almost 40% of our corn acreage is devoted to producing ethanol.)

One reason the phrase is so favored is because feeding is an essential and benevolent activity that conjures comfortable memories of preparing, serving, and enjoying meals. To satisfy this basic need for the whole world is a noble endeavor. And, of course, there are grains of truth here. US farmers can feel good that they are helping to meet the food needs of those who can afford to buy their products.

The problem with “feeding the world”

But the phrase conflates the important issues of food production and hunger alleviation. It implies that producing corn and soybeans is the equivalent of putting food into the mouths of hungry people. But there is no direct connection between U.S. corn and soy production and ending hunger elsewhere (or for that matter in the US). In fact, the truth is that high production in the U.S. can depress world grain prices and throw developing country farmers off the land.

It is time to separate the issues of hunger alleviation and crop production.

Despite decades of surplus commodity crop production, world hunger has been, and remains, an acute problem. In its recent report, FAO estimates that 868 million people (12.5% of the world population) are undernourished in terms of energy intake. (That’s only a part of the hunger problem. The full global burden of malnutrition would include 26% of the world children who are stunted, 2 billion people suffering from one or more micronutrient deficiencies and 500 million people who are obese.)

Simply increasing crop production in the U.S. won’t help feed those people because insufficient production—and certainly insufficient production in the developed world—is not the heart of the problem. Many issues beyond production need to be addressed and most of the effort needs to be directed to the developing world. Tackling issues like infrastructure, transport, storage, prices, and the role of women in an integrated way, as both the FAO and the Feed the Future initiatives do, is the only serious approach to the world hunger problem.

Implying that U.S. grain exports can alleviate hunger by feeding the world distracts from that key understanding.

Help the world feed itself

U.S. export policy should be addressed on its own terms, primarily as an economic issue rather than a humanitarian enterprise. Hungry people should not be the poster-children for the interests of the well-fed.

People who care most about developing country agriculture don’t use the phrase “feeding the world.” Those interested in corn and soybean exports should drop it as well.

If we need a catchphrase for world hunger issues, we could consider “helping the world feed itself.” I know, it doesn’t exactly sing, but it will help us focus on genuine solutions to vital global problems.

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  • Robert Cruder

    Limits on food production derive from shrinking arable land due to salt and sand, shrinking water supplies and exhaustion of the major potash and phosphate rock quarries in the next decade.

    Match that to the percentage of humans that live in cultures where fertility is mandated by religion and where malnutrition is its only constraint.

    If a full belly merely leads to another mouth for someone to feed then food aid increases rather than decreases the number of starving/suffering people. Just where is the morality in that?

    No matter what you do to make that small farmer self-sustaining today, he won’t be self sustaining after splitting his land with eight sons.

    This inevitability of starvation is not a third-world phenomenon. It is driven by culture, not country. Every first-world country hosts some cultures that obey the pattern.

    One cannot blame big business, corporate agriculture or international finance. The malefactor is in the bedroom and it is just another form of greed.

    The only rational sequence is to first reduce desired family size by replacing religion with education expecially for females. One cannot morally offer food assistance to a culture that refuses to educate its girls.

    The second step is to offer free family planning including abortion to any woman who asks. It is far less expensive than subsidizing the offspring. One cannot morally offer food assistance to a culture that refuses to give women and their families choices.

    That sequence stresses voluntarily change. Inevitably, the few families that are most resistant will produce more offspring who will themselves be more resistant. To avoid complete replacement of a population with a higher-fertility underclass one must at some point deny any assistance to the most fertile families among them.

    Please argue the opposite; that supplying unlimited food to a malnutrition-limited population will stabilize its numbers.

    • Bradford

      @Robert Cruder:
      “CRUDE” is more *accurate* a moniker…
      1.So-called “food production limits” are imaginary constructs of SMALL MINDS, such as yours. “Shrinking arable land due to salt and sand” are the RESULTS of FAILED “Big Ag” policy of the past Century – they are NOT Natural limits. Try again…
      2. After said farmer splits his land with 8 sons, and they grow intelligently, they can produce, cooperatively, a bounty for 100’s…or 1,000’s…or 10,000’s….Try again, kiddo…(…LIFE BEGETS LIFE…)
      3.”Big Business”, Corporate Agriculture, and International Finance *ARE* the unholy trinity of EVIL, but they refuse to accept THEIR responsibility, thus, they must be “blamed”… The goal of food production must be only food production, and NOT GROSS, OBSCENE, UNEARNED “profits” for a few priviledged, rich elites…
      4.I find your “abortion-on-demand” to be inherently anti-human, and a pandering to the brainwashed masses of Libtards. Only Global Elitists, and Luddite Malthusians still believe in the over-population bunkum…
      The COMFORTABLE carrying capacity of Planet Earth is at least 10, 20, 30 or more BILLION…*IF* we do it correctly. If we insist on the unsustainable “debt&death” paradigm of “big bizness / bigAg / big finance”, then we were overpopulated billions ago…
      5.Where doews *EDUCATION*, and *HUMAN*RIGHTS* and *FREEDOM* fit into your mindset…???…NOWHERE, that I can see…
      Finally, NO!, I will NOT accept EITHER of your FALSE CHOICES…Nor will I “argue” them…
      It’s NOT about “them”…it’s about *US*, and *WE*, Robert. Please rejoin the Human Race…*THINK*AGAIN*, once more, with LOVE…

  • DHFabian

    And the catch? Many are willing to help foreign countries while remaining opposed to helping America’s poor — children, the disabled, the elderly, the jobless. We sometimes talk about the rising tide lifting all boats. It would be more accurate today to think in terms of “the sinking ship will take us all down.” We need to look at US hunger because it does have a powerful impact on the ability of the country to remain competitive.

  • Lawrence

    50 years from now we will look back with shame if we do not use all means (biotech, organic, plant breeding, automation, fertilizers, etc.) to help small and large farmers to provide the food and feed we need.

  • Shawn Yarnes

    Food programs using empty catch phrases, regardless of which one, deserve appropriate criticism if they do not sustainability improve nutrition. Semantic backlash against “feeding the world” is a tad misdirected. Considering that feeding the world a sustainable nutritious diet is a critical challenge facing humanity, what could possibly be the advantage of banishing a simple phrase that concisely describes the problem? Awareness and understanding of agriculture, climate, and the complex elements that affect food security issues is very low. Those of us involved spreading awareness and presenting science should make our message simple to understand. I vote for not limiting the verbal arsenal.

  • Patty Saucerman

    A wonderful concept that needs more attention.

    A note to UCS:
    I woud like to “like” this blog without going to Facebook. How can I do that?

  • Thank you so much for highlighting this issue! I, too, am frustrated by a noble goal – feeding the world – being used as an excuse to continue or even expand unsustainable practices. Moreover, the “feed the world” mantra obscures the more widespread problem of malnourishment. Calories can save someone for a week or a month, but sustaining human life for years or decades takes more micronutrients than corn, wheat, and soy will ever provide. Considering the micronutrient delivery of different agricultural systems, I think, shows the weakness of industrial agriculture and that, if we truly care about feeding the world, we need to think beyond calories and corn to crops that truly nourish people.

    I recently presented a preliminary calculation of the micronutrients from different crop systems at the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium. Talks will be posted soon, but my slides are already available here: http://www.slideshare.net/ancestralhealth/alyssa-rhoden-give-them-grains-analyzing-approaches-to-world-hunger-ahs13

  • John Troughton

    Like your comments. Active in World Food Day this year and this is great thoughts to add.

  • Madeleine Love

    Nice article. Re “helping the world feed itself”, I think “getting out of the way so the world can feed itself” is a useful consideration.
    All of Africa was feeding itself (with net exports) as I understand, until the developed world was over-producing and dumped their produce on Africa. Furthermore I’ve read of many other factors.. et the IMF, resources wars, bribes of African leaders ditto disrupted agriculture and markets.

  • Peter Lawton

    “Show me the means,
    To grow some beans,
    And keep some chickens handy”.
    *peter lawton. 31 Aug 2013*

  • bradley mcbroom

    Bravo, you’re spot on Margaret but there is a link with knowledge and technology transfer from our decadent consuming society who pays relatively nothing for food to those who lack the basics to produce their own food. Unfortunately, despite effective NGOs like Heifer, One Acre and Rebew–most of the technology and knowledge transfer is coming from selfish interest big corporations that are only concerned with educating and helping new customers so they can buy their products. I guess it could be worse–we could have no investment. Brad McBroom

    • Thomas Fincker

      McBroom and you are both full of crap. No agriculture productivity, can you say 2 million hungry in 20 years?

      Ms. Mellons stats are correct if not understated about the number of hunger challenged. What most people don’t realize are 50 million of those people are in the U.S.!

      Come on, use some common sense. Food stamps are already under fire–what happens if we start to go organic too much or EPA curbs development of agriculture technology and American housewives now have to pay double for their food like the rest of the developed nations in the world?

      Common sense is that the benevolent U.S. will be under pressure to not be so benevolent with food stamps, foreign hunger relief and third world agricultural development etc.

      Big agriculture in the U.S. is good for those consumers who can afford to drive their Subaru’s to the local farmer market to drastically overpay for locally grown “organic” produce–it’s also good for feeding people in Appalachia and teaching little farmers in Ghana to be self sustaining.

      Thomas Fincker

      • Joe Maurer

        Thomas Fincker,

        The phrase “American housewives” is a dated to an era when a Woman did not have a right to vote.

      • Bradford

        Sorry, “Fincker” – you FLUNK… Organic foods are only “expensive” NOW, in the SHORT-term, because they still lack the price-lowering effects of economies-of-scale. Our current, fossil-fuel intensive, and ever more GMO-dependent Corporate Industrial scale food production system is only “cheap”, and “inexpensive” because it is so heavily subsidized by the FedGov & Taxpayers… And, we have barely begun to explore small-scale aqua-culture/aqua-ponics, vertical gardens, etc…
        You sound like the kind of food “Doom-&-Gloomer” that ADM, ConAgra, etc., LOVE…But, you’re an idiot, at best…and a THREAT to the future, at worst…Please GO AWAY…