To Feed the World, We Don’t Need to Grow More Food

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.

To Feed the World, We Don't Need to Grow More Food

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?

To Feed the World, We Don't Need to Grow More Food2. 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.

About The Author

10 thoughts on “To Feed the World, We Don’t Need to Grow More Food”

  1. It is not a question of having enough food available to feed the worlds hungry. The question is how will they pay for the food they need? Who will supply them with the food they need .. free of charge? Maybe we are looking at this food problem from the wrong angle.

  2. You need to look at meat differently instead of reducing it and supporting the meat producers who are raising animals holistically. A historical perspective if it were not for the estimated 500 million bison roaming the Great Plains massaging the soil with their hooves letting rain fill the underground water systems and leaving their manure there would not be the richness of the soil. Animals built the bread basket of this nation. The problem is feedlots and industrialized production. There are many local small producers that if supported would continually grow the right animal. Biodiversity is plants and animals. Refer to holistic range management or the savory There was a PBS program the New Wild and he was featured. Reductionism is the issue here. Birds and animals enrich the soil and disperse seeds.

    1. That sort of goes along with the idea of reducing meat consumption, though, doesn’t it? You would have to raise fewer animals for food, because of space limitations inherent in that style of animal ag.

  3. There are some good points in the article. There are also a lot of misconceptions that have been around for a long time as well.

    I don’t think anyone would even argue that more fruits and vegies growing would be a bad thing at all. However, our country produces an over abundance of grain every year, and that is the edible grains. Cattle and other livestock are obviously fed a specific grain that are not the same corn that you and I eat. I agree, that land could be used for what we could eat, but we are still producing enough for human consumption. There are more grain items thrown out every year due to expiration dates than you can imagine.

    One of the problems with talking about growing more fruits and vegies in place of the grains here in the states is that the areas where most of the grains are raised do not have a long enough growing season. And areas where cattle are being grazed are being grazed for the simple reason that the soil is so inadequate for growing anything; well, you couldn’t grow a crop. I have read on blogs where 80% of the land available is just sitting there. Well, take the Rockies out of the picture, take Wyoming and most of Eastern Colorado out, almost all of Nevada, Arizona… you get the picture… places that cannot be used for farming, and you do not have the land to grow anything.

    You can however grow in aquaponic or hydraponic facilities. They work wonders. Currently, you can’t get a bank to fund you or really any other financial institution. And your friends will say “I don’t have the money right now, but when you have it up and going, let me know.” The organizations that say less beef more vegies don’t fund these facilities either. So although they want more vegies, they have the answer, not the solution, nor do they support the solution.

    Back on the beef thing. Someone mentioned it is more the feedlots that is the problem. You are right. A rancher who is concerned about his livelihood is going to treat it as well as anyone treats their business. A reasonable sized heard that is natural does well. He knows how to treat his/her land and his animals.

    In the animal industry overall, you can’t remove them all. Imagine how quickly our economy would cease. Even vegetable and fruit farmers would immediately go under. However, it still wouldn’t stop people from eating meats as so much of our meat products are imported.

    The thing about all of it is we really our in a water crisis nation wide, not just California. In Colorado right now you can’t dig a new well if you even remotely have the capability of hooking into a community water source. People will sell you their oil rights before they will sell you the water rights on land you buy. We need ways to raise any crop, animal or plant the most efficiently.

    Any food source has it’s evil’s and it’s positives. Anyone can find them for any source and the debate will continue. There has to be a happy medium. But if you are going to recommend something, have an answer to fix the part of your recommendation you want eliminated. Don’t just throw something out there. That’s where you lose people.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top