To Feed the World, We Don’t Need to Grow More Food
“We need to feed the world” is biotech’s favorite marketing slogan. It paints proponents of sustainable agriculture as extremists who care more about shopping at Whole Foods than helping the hungry. And it’s so, so wrong.
Maria Rodale recently shared a short, common sense, by-the-numbers piece explaining exactly why organic agriculture is what will truly feed the world in the long term. She brings up some important points that companies like Monsanto don’t want us to talk about, and I recommend giving the whole thing a read. It’s stellar.
But the bit that stood out to me was the point she makes about how our food system works right now. Rodale points out that we already grow enough food to feed everyone in the world. The problem isn’t that we need to grow more food. We need to get smart about the food that we’re already growing if we truly want to feed the world.
Her point is something that I talked about in a piece that I wrote for How Stuff Works a few years ago: we don’t need to grow more food. We need to grow different food and rethink the way that we eat.
The first – and most obvious – change we need to make if we want to truly feed the world is to stop wasting so much food. That means more than just reducing food waste in our own kitchens. It even means more than eating “ugly” produce. Our food system needs a global overhaul to help us get food to people who need it, rather than letting it rot in fields or storage facilities.
The other sustainable weapon we have against hunger, though, is a bit more controversial. I think that Tanya hit the nail on the head when she proposed growing food for people to eat.
“Wait a second!” you may be saying. “Of course we are growing food for people to eat!” We do, but also we really don’t. There are two areas of our food system where this is a problem:
1. Processed Food
We plant millions of acres of genetically modified corn and sugar beets, and much of that crop doesn’t nourish anyone. Instead, we refine these plant foods into sugars and other processed food additives.
“Foods” like high fructose corn syrup and beet sugar do more than contribute to obesity and obesity-related diseases. They contribute to world hunger by stealing farmland that we could be using to grow fresh, healthy food for everyone. What if instead of eating high fructose corn syrup we ate more whole corn? Or used some of that land to grow crops that aren’t currently subsidized, like leafy greens and whole grains?
2. Meat Production
I know that cutting out animal products seems extreme to a lot of people. What seems extreme to me is that we’re using millions of acres of arable land to grow food for livestock when there are people going hungry here in the U.S. and all over the world.
Tanya pointed out how inefficient animal agriculture is in her piece, but it’s so shameful that I think it bears repeating here. We feed seven times more grain to livestock than we do to people here in the U.S. And the return on investment for all of those calories is about 50 percent. We’re indirectly wasting potential food every time we eat meat, because we could have fed a lot more people directly.
Imagine how many hungry kids we could feed if instead of growing GMO soy and corn, we planted fields of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
Our food system is going to need a drastic overhaul if we truly want to feed the world, and GMO crops are not the critical part of the solution that marketers want us to think. If companies like Monsanto truly cared about feeding the world, they’d be working on solutions to distribute food better and truly make us healthier rather than creating seeds designed to sell more chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Corn and soy images via Shutterstock.