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Feeding the World: The Ultimate First-World Conceit

Originally published by Triple Crisis Blog on 10/07/2014

Since the food price spikes of 2007-8, global hands have been wringing over the question, how will we feed the world? Population keeps growing, food-producing resources like land and water become more scarce, climate change introduces a dramatic uncertainty.

The images are downright Malthusian. The urgent recommendation is to produce more food, quickly. It is the theme of this year’s World Food Prize.

The question is fundamentally flawed, as is the Malthusian panic. There is no “we” who feed the world. There are, mostly, hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers. And there is no abstract “world” out there needing to be fed. There are about one billion hungry people, nearly all in developing countries. The majority are some of those same small-scale farmers. The rest are poor because they are unemployed or underemployed.

Increasing the industrial production of agricultural commodities does almost nothing for these people. Oddly enough, it can even make them hungrier.

Who feeds whom?

In practice, “we” all know whom “we” mean when we ask how “we” will feed the world. We mean industrialized societies, with their high-yield industrialized agriculture. But industrialized farms produce only 30% of the food consumed in the world today. Seventy percent is produced by small-scale farmers. And it’s mostly not traded across borders; only 15% of food is traded internationally. Eighty-five percent is consumed by the farming household, traded locally, or sold in domestic markets.

The conceit that first-world farmers feed the hungry is just that: conceited. What industrialized agriculture produces are agricultural commodities that serve as raw materials—occasionally as food, often as animal feed. It produces a lot of those raw materials, and the output has a lot to do with international prices for food commodities.