How hunger is related to our agricultural system & the Farm Bill

At first glance it is easy to make the connection between hunger and agriculture – after all, our food comes from farms, so if there is hunger there must be something wrong with our farming practices, right? However the nuances of this web of relationships are more complex and meaningful than meets the eye. From the selective subsidies in the Farm Bill to poor working conditions and pay for farm workers to the consolidation of “Big Ag”, the way we have been producing our food has lead to an attitude of yield over quality, and profit margins over nutritional value. It has produced enough food to feed the world, yet the numbers of the hungry worldwide, including Americans, has risen…but why?

WHAT’S WRONG WITH MODERN INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE?

Most of us have seen Food Inc, have read something by Michael Pollan, or have read an article somewhere that has shown the many vulnerabilities and holes in the modern industrial farming philosophy and the dangers of monoculture and a petroleum-based system. If you don’t live under a rock, there’s a chance you’ve heard that the way industrial agriculture is set up now is not sustainable and is not effectively feeding the world, despite the abundance of food being produced.

Some of the reason for this is what’s written in the Farm Bill, an important piece of legislation that encompasses a wide range of policies throughout the food system from commodity pricing and agricultural land conservation to support for farmer’s markets and nutrition programs. Farm bill policies directly affect food prices which in turn affects who has access to healthy foods and who doesn’t. The commodity subsidies in our current legislation favor large farms that grow only five main crops (corn, cotton, rice, wheat, and soybeans) and gives little or no money to smaller farmers that grow “specialty crops” also known as fruits and vegetables. The stirring short film below titled “In Short Supply: Small Farmers and the Struggle to Deliver Healthy Food to Your Plate” illustrates the consequences of these policies on small family farmers growing real, healthy food.

“With hardly any subsidies for fruits and vegetables, their price in stores increased by nearly 40% over 15 years while the real price of soft drinks declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow” .

The Farm Bill is a primary tool in the fight against hunger because it dictates many aspects of our food system. The pie (hehe) chart above shows how 76% of the focus of this legislation is on nutrition programs, from WIC and SNAP to the School Lunch Program, and out of school meals for kids. Many believe that there is a lot of opportunity in the upcoming renewal of the Farm Bill to improve supports for local farmers producing fruits and vegetables, to invest in rural economies and jobs, and to boost SNAP benefits to help struggling families get through the month and buy more healthful foods.

CAN ORGANIC FEED THE WORLD?

This article by Barry Estabrook from The Atlantic gives a compelling case for the argument that organic can in fact feed the world, mostly by citing how many scientific studies that have been conducted that support this theory (over 100 of them). Estabrook also brings up this idea of “agroecology“, or combining eco-friendly farming technologies with the natural, social, and human assets. If you have a half hour to kill and want to hear about “Food movements, agroecology, and the future of food and farming”  in depth, and hear more about how our global food & farming system currently contributes to hunger, I highly recommend this lecture by Eric Holt-Gimenez of Food First. If you’d prefer to read about it, check out Food First’s collection of essays from food movement leaders around the world at http://www.foodmovementsunite.org/.

If you think I’ve done a poor job of summarizing how farming relates to hunger, you’re probably right because this is a major debate that concerns the global food system, with many moving pieces and viewpoints. So I’ll leave it up to you to decide; however, Estabrook’s piece ends with a striking statement that deserves pondering:

Given that the current food production system, which is really a 75-year-old experiment, leaves nearly one billion of the world’s seven billion humans seriously undernourished today, the onus should be on the advocates of agribusiness to prove their model can feed a future population of nine billion — not the other way around.

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