Feeding the 9 Billion

As organic food continues to make inroads into the marketplace, the conventional agricultural industry is turning up the volume on their “Feeding the World” argument.

In October, roughly 60,000 rural high school students gathered in Louisville, KY for the annual FFA (formerly known as Future Farmers’ of America) convention. Huge chemical and biotechnology companies carpeted the convention’s trade show area with pavilions proclaiming their commitment to feeding the 9 billion people expected to inhabit the globe in the next decade. The common theme: More chemicals and genetically modified crops and animals on U.S. farms will feed the world.

A few weeks later, I was hosting a booth for the National Bison Association at the annual convention of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting (NAFB). You may not be familiar with NAFB, but farmers on tractors and ranchers in pickup trucks rely on farm broadcasters to keep them posted on the hourly fluctuations of the price of a bushel of wheat, or a pound of pork.

So, I guess I wasn’t surprised at the NAFB convention when a college intern for one of the major conference sponsors approached me to ask, “So, how is your group going to help feed the nine billion?”

My response: My response: “We’re not.”

The young intern looked shocked. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Wouldn’t it be better if we helped the nine billion feed themselves?” I answered.

We had an interesting conversation at that point.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge proponent of food security. For too long, though, the conventional wisdom in conventional agriculture has focused upon the idea that a shrinking number of American farms are going to feed the world’s increasing population. In fact, the American Farm Bureau Federation yearly publishes an estimate of how many people are fed by the average American farmer. In 1960, the figure was 28. Last year, it was 155.

For some odd reason, I just can’t buy into the national fewer farmers, using more chemicals and genetically modified crops, hold the key to solving world hunger. In fact, one recent study from a team of European scientists projects that climate change—much of it fueled by conventional farming practices, could reduce global food production by 18% over the next 35 years.

Across much of the globe, small, indigenous farmers provide the backbone of local food systems. Those farmers don’t have the capacity to buy the GMO seeds, the chemicals and the large equipment that dominates the American countryside. A smarter path will be to provide those farmers with low-tech tools and practices to produce more food while conserving scarce soil and water resources.

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