Defenders of industrial farming often point to its capacity to produce food on a global scale as the trade-off for its environmentally destructive methods—but a new report finds that, even in its ostensible strengths, Big Ag falls all too short.
The green research and advocacy organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) on Wednesday released a report titled Feeding The World: Think U.S. Agriculture Will End World Hunger? Think Again, which found that the vast majority of food produced by U.S. industrial farms last year went to the most developed nations in the world, while the countries most in need of aid—including Haiti, Yemen, and Ethiopia—received half of one percent.
In fact, the top five destinations for American agricultural exports were China, Canada, Mexico, and the European Union, which received 86 percent of products in 2015 despite receiving anywhere from medium to very high human development ratings, and low rates of hunger, from the United Nations Development Program. The authors note that meat, dairy, and animal feed—such as corn, soybeans, and soybean meal—made up a full half of all exports to the top 20 destinations in 2015.
That means 50 percent of the total export value "was earned by products that help people in wealthier countries eat more meat," they wrote.
"We wanted to dig into the fictitious notion that America's farmers are feeding people in undernourished countries, and the assertion that so-called 'modern' farming techniques are our only option if we ever hope to do so," said report author and EWG senior analyst for economics Anne Weir Schechinger. "This is simply a myth adopted and deployed by U.S. agribusiness to distract the public from reality. The indisputable facts are that we are sending mostly meat products and animal feed to wealthy countries, and we are not sending much food at all to those nations struggling to feed their people."
And as Civil Eats pointed out in its write-up of EWG's report, agricultural exports to wealthy countries has yet to solve their other nutritional crises, such as obesity, which the International Food Policy Institute says is due to growing wealth and education gaps.
Meanwhile, in 2013, U.S. exports and aid made up just 2.3 percent of the food supply to the 19 hungriest countries, EWG said. Most of that—63 percent—went to Haiti and Yemen, while the other 17 received evenly distributed minuscule portions.
The report comes as powerful agricultural multinationals like Monsanto double down on their call for increasing industrial farming to help "feed the world."
But that appeal is disingenuous, the authors write.
Not just because the U.S. already produces enough food to feed everyone on the planet about one and a half times over, but also because large-scale industrial farming is one of the biggest drivers of the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change. And as anti-hunger organizations like Food First have often pointed out, the line that only Big Ag can feed the world is a dangerous myth; in fact, it accelerates land and resource grabs and fuels topsoil erosion, harming local and organic farmers in the process.
"[T]o claim that U.S. farmers and agribusinesses must go all-out to feed the world—regardless of the consequences to human health and the environment—amounts to wrapping a business opportunity in the cloak of moral necessity," EWG's report states.
"All-out food production in the United States won't end world hunger," the authors write in an infographic for the report. "It will be hardworking and mostly small farmers in the developing world who will lift themselves and their people out of poverty."
They cite a 2015 World Environment Day speech by José Graziano da Silva, director general of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), who said, "Every year in rich countries we waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa. With the food we waste we would be able to feed at least 1/3 of the world's hungry people."
"By 2050, we will need to increase food production by 60 percent and improve its distribution to feed over 9 billion people," the quote continues. "But that is not enough: access and the sustainability of our food systems emerge as key factors for food security. Access because the main cause of hunger today is that poor families do not have the resources to buy or produce the food they need. And sustainability because, as World Environment Day tells us, we are seven billion dreams, sharing only one Planet. We all must consume with care."