Do/Should Minnesota Farms and Agribusiness REALLY “feed the world?”

Last Saturday was “Celebrate Ag & Food Day” at the Gophers game.  It was a day to laud the U of M research resources and the benefits thereof to the economic health of the state’s agribusiness sector.  The celebratory pitch should also give pause for Minnesotans who support that symbiotic relationship to think about the businesses themselves as well as the food products they create, produce, promote and profit from, the hype and the reality.

As recently as yesterday, September 17, National Public Radio carried a major piece on the much touted “Feed the World” promotion favored by corporate farmers and agribusiness.  The “we’re feeding the world” mantra, according to NPR reporter Dan Charles, is ”high-tech agriculture’s claim to the moral high ground.”  Charles Arnot, a one-time PR executive for food and farming companies, now CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, observes that  “U.S. farmers have a tremendous sense of pride in the fact that they’ve been able to help feed the world.”

The problem is not everyone agrees that large-scale, technology-based agriculture is an unmitigated good.  They hold that the cost to the environment and to the nutritional needs of this nation and the world needs to be factored in.  Some, including Margaret Mellon of Concerned Scientists, hold that use of the term itself is waning.

Mellon welcomes the disenchantment with the term.  The problem with ‘feeding the world,’ she says is that “the phrase conflates the important issues of food production and hunger alleviation.  It implies that producing corn and soybeans is the equivalent of putting food into the mouths of hungry people.  But there is no direct connection between U.S. corn and soy production and ending hunger elsewhere (or for that matter in the US).  In fact, the truth is that high production in the U.S. can depress world grain prices and throw developing country farmers off the land.”

It seems reasonable to me that, just because we have such a huge stake in farming and agribusiness, Minnesotans bear some responsibility to be informed about and involved in thinking about the complexities of food production and distribution.

On the one hand, we Minnesotans are a compassionate people for whom feeding the world seems such a worthy cause; access to food is a basic human right.  Moreover, as Mellon writes, the efforts to feed the world conjure “comfortable memories of preparing, serving and enjoying meals.  To satisfy this basic need for the whole world is a noble endeavor.  And, of course, there are grams of truth here. US farmers can feel good that they are helping to meet the food needs of those who can afford to buy their products.” Minnesotans have good reason to be proud of the education system and the political and economic environment that supports the cause.

As compassionate people Minnesotans also care about our neighbors who are hungry and kids who are reared on junk food at the same time we feed the world.  Complex as the issues are, we even pay attention to trade agreements, GMO’s, distribution and the actual consumption of the massive soybean and corn products our rich farmlands yield.  Lots of us, from University researchers to truck drivers, nutritionists to grocery shopper are active links along the food chain

The more I listen and read, the less I understand the complexities of food production, distribution and consumption.  The only thing of which I am certain is that, for the most part, we are not thinking systemically about food policy at the state, national or global level.

Minnesotans have a huge stake, as consumers, taxpayers, as a body politic.  We all care that our families and neighbors, the environment, the economy and people around the world are economically and physically healthy.  We just don’t think about it a lot and we don’t often exchange opinions with individuals or groups that approach the complexity from different perspectives.

As we take pride in our University research capability and community contributions of those who prosper in our agribusinesses, Minnesotans with different points of view and perspectives need to learn together about the results of the investment and the benefits gained as measured in human as well as financial terms.

 

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