Feeding the Hungry – Iowa Style


The United Nations asserted that food production must double by 2050 to meet growing world-wide demand and to combat hunger which affects a billion people who are already here.

The 2009 report explained, “to achieve food security, investment in agricultural research, natural resources, financial services, local infrastructure, market links and safety nets are pivotal. Food prices, already high and volatile, could spike again as droughts, floods and other climate-related events affect harvests.”

In Iowa almost everyone has an opinion on how to feed the world, and there is no denying that the factors listed at the UN are important. There is also a role for increased productivity, measured in food produced per acre, in feeding the world.

To an investor—the kind that derives a living from Wall Street trading—opportunity presents itself. Synthetic biology writer Maxx Chatsko explained on The Motley Fool:

To boost yields and combat pests, farmers will need to increasingly rely on technology ranging from high-yield seeds to agricultural biotechnology to even the Internet of Things.

While progress is being made, consumers in many wealthy nations are demanding that their food be grown using organic farming principles. Some consumers rationalize their purchasing decisions by claiming the health benefits of organic food (which have been thoroughly debunked), the avoidance of health risks associated with genetically modified foods (with which the scientific consensus disagrees), or the more environmentally friendly and sustainable approach to agriculture that organic farming enables.

This chart from Tom Vilsack’s USDA, cited by Chatsko, is a bit misleading:

USDA Organic Food SalesFor anyone who has been in a popular grocery store, box store or warehouse club, the proliferation of organic products is no secret and people are buying them. Growth of this market segment may represent an investment opportunity, or as Chatsko indicated, “the trend in organic food sales hints that opportunity does indeed exist, even if it’s fueled in large part by outsize marketing budgets, a fundamental information gap, or, worst of all, misinformation.” What’s most misleading about the chart is that it is only a market segment, not the global picture. That’s what the UN report was describing.

Local food production doesn’t come up in the UN report or on the Motley Fool analysis, and some of us believe it represents an answer to eliminating hunger. So where is it?

Partly, we are enamored of a few rock star farmers like Joel Salatin. It is hard not to like the stories Salatin tells in books like “Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World.” If Salatin and his ilk are great promoters of eating “real food,” such punditry doesn’t get to solutions to real problems. Thoughtful nuggets like this one distract us,

The world is awash in food and 50 percent of human food goes to waste because of anything from pernickety consumers, or because a Red Cross truck can’t get through a border. If you and I could figure out how to double food production, there would still be people going hungry for a whole lot of socio-economic issues.

We like Salatin, and some of us are glad he is able to make a living by speaking, farming and writing, but a few rock stars will not feed the world.

The story of Cuba tells a different, and I believe more sustainable story. Cuban agricultural systems were disrupted the end of Soviet support, oil imports particularly, in 1989. Reacting to change in the agricultural system became a national necessity as Cubans literally lost weight due to lack of calories. Cuba went local and semi-organic. Christopher D. Cook is among the most recent to recount Cuba’s story in “Cuba’s Harvest of Surprises.”

Cuba’s farmers shifted to organic fertilizers, traditional crops and animal breeds, diversified farming with crop rotations, and non-toxic pest controls emphasizing the use of beneficial plants and insects. This blend of measures is part of a sustainable-agriculture approach known as agroecology. It’s often described as a promising innovation — which is a little ironic given that it draws on age-old peasant farming practices.

There is a case to be made for peasant agriculture as a way to feed the hungry in a sustainable way. In doing so, there are substantial world-wide obstacles, not the least of which is access to land. In the United States people perceive a return to peasant-style lives as unappealing when they already cannot find time in the day. If Cuba represents a possible solution, it needs an advocate, and I don’t mean U.S. normalization with the island nation or a rock star promoter of it’s semi-organic food system.

There is a growing local food movement in the U.S. and it has had successes and challenges. A lot of folks are entering the local food movement only to find that it is tough to make a living. To clarify, by local food movement I refer to producing consumer goods to support a Community Supported Agriculture project, restaurant, farmers market or other geographically local food sales.

How people access land is a key constraint to entering the local food business. Local food production also relies on cheap labor—barter agreements, volunteers and lowly paid professional staff. Like with so-called traditional farming, success has been elusive and often requires government subsidies or working off the farm to pay basic, year-round living expenses.

Jaclyn Moyer, a Slate writer who operates a 10-acre farm in California, asked some key questions of the often rosy picture painted of small scale, local food producers. “Do you make a living? Can you afford rent, healthcare? Can you pay your labor a living wage?” She answered her own questions, “if the reporter had asked me these questions, I would have said no.”

Global hunger is a real problem, to which “feeding the world,” especially from Iowa, is no solution. Increasing food production is, has been and will remain a key challenge to agriculture as long as the value of a day’s work is eroded by marketplace demands. There is nothing new about that, and the introduction of farm subsidies during the New Deal is rooted in this basic problem with farm life.

There is a lot we can do to alleviate hunger. For urban dwellers, there is a substantial opportunity in food recovery, about which I wrote for the newspaper. Donations of food, money and time to a food bank all produce positive results toward hunger elimination. The use of urban space has potential for local food production. Whether one grows herbs on a window ledge or plants some kale and tomatoes on a few square feet in the backyard, everything helps increase the amount of available food for people who need it. These are small things that can make an impact.

Growing world population is not a new issue, but the limits of our ecosystem to sustain people are becoming increasingly evident. While a row crop farmer may be able to carve out a living by increasing yield or reducing input costs, it isn’t a solution to world hunger. As the UN pointed out, it is about more than productivity. It is about climate change, political issues, finance and land as much as it is about growing food. Until those issues come to be recognized and closer to resolution we can do as many small scale things as we like and people will continue to go hungry.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t do what we can. We should. At the same time, if we don’t accept what the UN has said is the problem, then someone with standing, and less of an axe to grind, should get to work on the issue. Don’t look for a rock star to do it. Hope is the solution lies within each one of us working together.