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To feed the world, do we really need to grow more food?

Feeding the world is not about increasing how many bushels of grain we can grow, it’s about dirt, democracy, and our diets, says one report.

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    Un-harvested corn in a field near Council Bluffs, Iowa.
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How many scientists does it take to debunk the myth that we need more food to feed the world? In the past decade, hundreds of scientists and experts have made it clear: Feeding the world is not about increasing how many bushels of grain we can grow, it’s about dirt, democracy, and our diets. 

A new report from Friends of the Earth, Farming for the Future, compiles the data and details how we can create a food system that feeds all people, now and into the future.

Democracy

Scientists estimate that farmers already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people — far more than the current population of roughly 7.3 billion. Still, at least 800 million go hungry every day and many more are undernourished. Why? Because hunger is not caused by a scarcity in food, it’s caused by a scarcity in democracy and unequal access to land, water, credit, and fair markets.

Small farmers are the backbone of world food supply, making up 90 percent of farmers worldwide and providing more than 80 percent of the food consumed in much of the developing world. Increasing their access to resources is fundamental to food security and poverty reduction.

Diets

The great plenty of the United States grain belt is not “feeding the world.” It is primarily feeding cars, cows, chickens and pigs; 40 percent of U.S. corn goes to biofuels and another 35 percent is used for animal feed. These trends are replicated globally. Reducing meat consumption in line with standard dietary guidelines could free up land and resources to grow nutritious food directly for people. It could also save up to US$31 trillion globally by reducing healthcare costs and environmental damage associated with livestock production, according to one analysis.

Reducing food waste is also key; one-third of food produced globally is lost to waste, spoilage or left in the field, creating scarcity out of abundance.

Dirt

To grow food, we need good soil, clean water, abundant pollinators, and a stable climate. Our ability to feed ourselves and future generations depends on healthy ecosystems.

Today’s industrial food system is hurtling headlong in the wrong direction. Environmental harm caused by industrial agriculture costs the world US$3 trillion each year, including US$1.8 trillion from livestock production, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Evidence of harm is everywhere: from soil erosion and major greenhouse gas emissions, to depletion of water resources and oceanic dead zones associated with synthetic fertilizer run-off.

The good news is millions of farmers around the world are leading the way to a more sustainable food future by using organic and other ecological farming methods. Not only can they yield enough to feed a growing population, research shows that agroecological practices like intercropping, cover cropping, crop rotation, conservation tillage, composting and managed livestock grazing can foster biodiversity, natural soil fertility, water conservation and biological control of insects.

Compared with industrial agriculture, organic farming is less energy intensive and sequesters more carbon in the soil, making it a crucial climate change mitigation strategy. Organic farming systems provide greater resilience in the face of climate-related weather impacts like drought and floods by improving soil structure and soil water-holding capacity.

Organic also outperforms industrial agriculture on measures of economic stability and well-being and protects the health of consumers, farmers, farmworkers, and rural communities by eliminating the use of highly toxic pesticides.

The public relations spin

Why is the myth that we need more food to feed the world so persistent despite all of this evidence? As Friends of the Earth’s 2015 report Spinning Food documents, agrichemical companies and their allies spend tens of millions of dollars a year to spread misleading messages about the safety and necessity of chemical-intensive industrial agriculture. This narrative — along with a political process captured by corporate interests — bolsters a system that delivers billions of dollars a year in profits to agribusinesses from costly inputs — including pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones and genetically engineered seeds.

Policies for a sustainable food future

The myth that we need more food to feed the world is used to justify policies, research and markets that keep us on the path of business as usual. The following policy priorities address the true causes of hunger and lead the way to a sustainable food future:

•          Boost public investment in conservation programs, research, and technical assistance to expand support for transition to organic and more diversified, sustainable production systems;

•          Increase small- and mid-scale food producers’ access to arable land, water, credit, and fair markets, with a focus on women, disadvantaged, beginning, and young farmers;

•          Reject international trade agreements that prioritize export commodity production and erode public investments in local and regional diversified food production;

•          Shift subsidies and policies away from support for biofuel and livestock feed crops and into support for diversified, nutritious crops and mixed crop/livestock systems; linking existing subsidies, including crop insurance to the implementation of diversified farming and conservation practices;

•          Create stricter regulations and anti-trust enforcement to prevent unfair pricing and consolidation throughout the food supply chain;

•          Shift diets by enacting nutrition and procurement policies that promote consumption of more plant-based foods and less meat;

•          Increase living wages and strengthen and enforce labor laws protecting agricultural workers, particularly women;

•          Strengthen the regulation of industrial agriculture and concentrated animal feeding operations to reduce air and water pollution and curb greenhouse gas emissions;

•          Enact stricter regulation of use of synthetic chemical inputs, including banning the routine use of antibiotics in animal agriculture and bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides;

•          Reduce the billions of tons of food wasted each year.

Friends of the Earth and our allies are helping to lead a groundswell of citizen, consumer and farmer action focused on building a sustainable, healthy, and equitable food system for all. Please join us!

Kendra Klein, PhD is Friends of the Earth’s staff scientist in agroecology and environmental health. Kari Hamerschlag is Friends of the Earth’s deputy director of the Food and Technology program.

This article first appeared on Food Tank.

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