The ‘Feed the World’ Debate: 2 Reviews

As U.S. agricultural yields have increased, farmers have often been paid less.  Consider wheat.

wheat-yield-value

GENERAL INTRODUCTION

This is a combination review of two recent articles criticizing the idea that U.S. agriculture does and should “Feed the World.  While I don’t agree with the original idea, the criticisms have serious flaws as well.  My basic thesis is that the Environmental Working Group, (in a recent report,) and Alan Guebert, (a farm journalist,) are weak against the idea that “we, (U.S. agriculture,) feeds the world.”

First I review: Anne Weir Schechinger and Craig Cox, “Feeding the World: Think U.S. Agriculture Will End World Hunger? Think Again,” Enviornmental Working Group, 10/6/16, http://www.ewg.org/research/feeding-the-world?inlist=Y&utm_source=201610News&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=201610News .

At the bottom I’ve added a review of: Alan Guebert, “Guebert: We feed the world is ‘not a harmless myth,’” The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com/business/guebert-we-feed-the-world-is-not-a-harmless-myth/article_d0bcaa0d-fbec-5ecd-b2e2-83f06f597654.html .  The Guebert piece is based on the EWG piece, and he also references a piece in The Des Moines Register on October 10, (also about the EWG piece).

For some of my previous criticisms of Environmental Working Group and Alan Guebert, see “For Further Reading,” at the bottom.

SYNOPSIS

While EWG’s Weir and Cox and Alan Guebert are well meaning, and make some very important points, their goal is subverted by a series of flaws.

[1.] the real issue is “pay the world,” (farmers,) not “feed the world.” Only when you pay them fairly can global farmers adequately feed themselves and their regions.  What’s more, paying global farmers fairly begins with paying U.S. farmers fairly, as we set world prices.

[2.]  U.S. farm productivity is very important in the equation, but in different ways than what EWG and Guebert have claimed. We have no false arrogance in thinking we’re a big deal globally. We are the big deal, and so it’s essential that we be properly understood, which we are not, in these sources.

[3.]  The solution is in the direction of reduced production, not the increased overproduction that agribusiness wants. Here Guebert supports EWG’s mistaken call for increased production, policies that will starve the world.

[4.] This problem hasn’t arisen from a quest for “profit” for U.S. “agriculture.” It’s arisen from policies and programs where the US, in it’s agriculture, has been losing money on farm exports over decades, as the evidence clearly shows.

[5.] The interests of farmers and agribusiness are clearly NOT much the same, as claimed by agribusiness, by EWG, and here by Guebert. They’re opposites.

[6.]  The key sector that has had the competence to see through the myths is the Family Farm Movement, which has long centered it’s focus on the issues of “farm justice.

In the final analysis, in light of flaws like these, EWG, Guebert, and many others have become, in important ways, duped by the dominant narrative of agribusiness.

ENVIRONMENTAL WORKING GROUP ON FEEDING THE WORLD

This is a hugely important topic, and there is some good information and there are some good generalizations in the EWG materials.

On the other hand, they really miss the mark on the biggest issues, and fail to put together the obvious information to offer the major solution that’s needed. They misunderstand the politics of narrative, (unknowingly) siding with agribusiness against their own obvious goals. As a result, they offer weak solutions while implicitly praising agribusiness for it’s worst role in causing starvation. They also misunderstand the relationship between US farmers and agribusiness, often failing to distinguish between the two, thus seeming to lump US farmers in with the pro-starvation agenda of agribusiness, (as if US farmers and agribusiness have the same interests, instead of having opposite interests).

SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR

Weir and Cox correctly tell how most of the hungry are rural, and that they’re hungry because of poverty. The hunger is worsened by important additional factors (i.e. lack of infrastructure, lack of investment by the governments of these countries,) which are closely tied to the poverty of these nations as a whole. These countries may be 69% rural or more (the average for Least Developed Countries). Clearly, then, we’re talking about rural poverty, about the farm economy, (topics which the Environmental Working Group has never understood, and where they’ve played a leading role in misinforming the public, as here). In fairly recent analysis, 80% of the “undernourished” were found to be rural, (see p. 3 here: http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/i0680e/i0680e00.htm ; and according to Harvard’s Robert Paarlberg, “undernourished” is a conservative estimate of how many are hungry). Of the growing urban 20%, many of them had been forced into the cities from rural areas by poverty. For example, the rural population of least developed countries, countries which have remained in chronic poverty, has shrunk from 92.5% in 1950 to 87.2 in 1970 to 79.9 in 1990 to 68.6% by 2015. (Based on “Annual Percentage of Population at Mid-Year Residing in Urban Areas,” https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/DataQuery/ )

Therefore, the obvious conclusion ….

Here Weir and Cox fail to take the next step. The key to ending hunger is for farmers to be paid more, (higher farm prices, not just higher wages for nonfarmers,) and a key to that is to prevent OVERproduction. So the biggest issue is that of farm prices, (not mentioned,) not wages (mentioned repeatedly, and also very important, but tied to the farm economy throughout the rural regions of the world).

Cheap prices and chronic overproduction starves the world. The US, (the price leader setting major global prices,) has reduced our Price Floor and supply reduction programs, (our market prices, with help from oversupply,) drastically, starting in 1953, and achieving repeated record low prices after the ending of these farm programs in 1996. Our farmers lost money (vs full costs) on a sum of 8 major crops every year 1981-2006 (except 1996) and on to today for 5 of them (every year but one,) and all 8 again in 2015 (http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/commodity-costs-and-returns.aspx ).

Weir and Cox correctly understand that “feed the world” is agribusiness spin, but they too get taken in by the spin, themselves spreading it’s worst aspects. Specifically, in the report they state:

“U.S. agricultural production does help keep food prices down. In general, the larger the supply of agricultural products, the lower the global market prices will be. It follows that if the U.S. were to produce less while demand stayed the same, global food prices would rise, hurting the 19 undernourished countries…. U.S. production does help hungry populations by keeping food prices relatively low, but the United States cannot rely solely on its impact on prices to help feed the hungry.” (p. 11-12)

What’s wrong with this statement? Well, the “undernourished countries” are farming countries. So Weir and Cox are arguing that the poverty in the (80%) farming countries is hurt by reduced production that causes increases in farm prices. They’re arguing that “feed the world” kinds of overproduction, which reduces the income of farmers, (causing rural poverty that spreads to nonfarm rural jobs and makes these countries poor in infrastructure and governmental money,) is a good thing for farming (“undernourished”) countries. No it is not a good thing! Overproduction and cheap farm prices in places like Africa is a huge cause of food poverty. It’s what starves the poor, it is not “help” for the 80% of the hungry who are rural. (See the article link below on EWG’s previous misunderstanding of these issues, in contrast to the views of the WTO Africa Group, which has supported my views, as has La Via Campesina [also linked].)

So EWG’s statement that we “cannot rely solely on” oversupply and cheap farm prices “to help feed the hungry,” (emphasis added,) must be turned around, by 180º We may be able to rely “solely” on cheap US farm prices to starve a significant portion of the world. The various statements of Weir and Cox, then, are so weak as to be on the wrong side of the issues, to be on the pro-agribusiness, pro-starvation side, because “feed the world” really means “starve the world.”

ALAN GUEBERT’S SUPPORT FOR EWG

Alan Guebert is a long time “ag” journalist who has gotten many issues right. In recent years, however, he’s become a sort of “foodie,” misunderstanding the biggest issues, (including the Farm Bill). Apparently he has never been a part of farm-related social movements, so he hasn’t really been in the loop of the most powerful narrative fights around the major issues, at least on the farmer or “farm justice” side of them, (as he certainly follows the mainstream ag press). That hasn’t usually been visible, as much of his work has exposed injustices. His latest piece illustrates his movement toward common Food Movement misunderstandings.

He begins with a discussion of the Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidy Database, which, he claims, “American farmers love to hate,” “especially the Big Boys.” Of course, that’s not true, as the majority of farmers have long criticized the subsidy system, and called for fair prices instead of any subsidies (i.e. in a variety of polls, and at the United Farmer and Rancher Congress). Most serious advocates were glad at the exposure of the stupidity of writing a check to everyone in the key sectors of the entire U.S. marketplace, while the U.S. chose to lose money on farm exports. They called for restoration of market management policies and programs, to fix the chronic failure of ‘free’ farm markets.

GUEBERT’S SLOPPINESS AND MISTAKES

The sloppiness of Guebert’s analysis is illustrated in his claim that “No one, however, complained about the [farm subsidy] database’s accuracy.” Actually it’s many inaccuracies have beeb readily apparent. Throughout it’s history, the amount given in an individual search has not always showed up as the same number on the list of the top recipients. These inaccuracies don’t distract from the general principle of the database, however, which is that farmers have been paid a lot of money. That general principle has almost always been misinterpreted, however, in that the larger economic and political context undergirding the subsidy issue has almost always been misunderstood outside of the Family Farm Movement, (which has always opposed the subsidy approach). (https://familyfarmjustice.me/2016/05/25/subsidies-vs-price-floors-in-farm-bill-history-revised/ )

More specifically, Guebert makes the same general mistake that we find in mainstream media and among Food and Environmental groups like EWG. He clearly assumes a case of an abuse of taxpayer money, following the EWG approach (i.e. naively assuming that farmers and agribusiness share the same interests, not opposing interests). That is, he criticizes subsidies without placing the money in the larger context of the lowering of farm prices, by Congress, to appease corporate lobbyists working directly against authentic farmer interests. So, like EWG, while meaning well, Guebert naively sides with agribusiness exploiters against farmer victims.

Market prices for corn, to take the biggest example, were below full costs, (as measured by USDA-ERS, Commodity Costs and Returns,) every year 1981-2006 except 1996, and they’re down there again 2014-2015. This means a negative return on investments in land, machinery and facilities. Rice was below full costs every year 1982-2006. Wheat has been above full costs only 4 times since ERS started computing this data in 1975. In my estimate, these economic realities have largely been ignored by more than 95% of those writing about farm subsidies today.

EWG, for example, has discounted the recent drop in farm prices, (i.e. sub $3.00 corn). Likewise, on one hand, EWG and others have criticized crop insurance companies for receiving 18% return on equity instead of a “reasonable” 13%. On the other hand, they’ve tended to place farmers in the same context, when in fact, (unknown to them,) farmers have seldom received double digit ROEs, let alone 13%, (which is low for the true farm bill beneficiaries, the agribusiness buyers and sellers, most of the time for decades, as Al Krebs and others have documented, [The Corporate Reapers, cf. Frank LeRoux, The Farmers Worst Five {or Seven or Nine, etc.,} Years, 4 editions, for earlier decades, cf. http://www.nfu.ca/sites/www.nfu.ca/files/corporate_profits.pdf ]).

To Guebert, then, “EWG fired a powerful, well-documented volley at the most sacred tenet in American agriculture, ‘We Feed The World,’ and hit it smack in the face.” As I’ve pointed out above, and in the links below, that’s far from the truth.

Guebert and EWG are surely correct that our exports and food aid don’t much go to countries where large numbers of people are hungry, and that “None of this should surprise anyone.” Like EWG, he’s also correct that “We Feed the World” is used as ideological spin. What’s hardly clarified at all, however, is that the spin is directed first toward farmers, to cover up the exploitation of farmers. Thus when Guebert mentions the consequences what he frames as “not a harmless myth,” he starts with damage to the environment and to public health, leaving out the damage to farmers. In fact he quotes the Des Moines Register as adding that it ALSO “led to low prices for farmers,” as if Guebert, an investigative reporter working on farm issues for decades, couldn’t come up with that on his own.

I see a heavy dose of liberal American puritanism in the arguments of Guebert and EWG about whether feeding the world is a “moral imperative” for the U.S. Basically they proclaim: how dare we be so arrogant as to think we’re such a big deal in global agriculture as to think we should feed the world! The plain truth is, however, that U.S. agriculture is, in our agricultural productivity, an enormously big deal. We ARE the Argentinosaurus in the room! For Decades we alone have had 50% or more of major global farm exports. That’s bigger than OPEC in oil! Without question, if we assume the (flawed) paradigm of “feed the world,” (and of Guebert and EWG,) the U.S. has long been capable of feeding the world such that we would have no hunger, and to many U.S. farmers it’s absurd that we haven’t used that productive power to end hunger, at least among hungry nonfarmers.

As rye productivity has increased, farmers have been paid less, not more.

rye-yield-value

What’s so radically misunderstood, however, is that the whole “feed the world” paradigm, as it has long been used, and as it is used here by Guebert, is much too small and distorted to really explain anything. And in the U.S., it’s mainly farmers, Family Farm activists and their close allies, who have provided an adequate alternative paradigm. Very simply, the Family Farm Movement has called for paying farmers fairly, including hungry global farmers, “paying the world!” as discussed above. And that requires supply reductions, to balance supply and demand. Again, 80% of the global “undernourished” are rural, mostly farmers, but also including nonfarmers who depend upon the farm economy and the level of farm prices. Again, that’s the real issue behind hunger. Pay the world for the food we buy from them! Farmers shouldn’t be subsidizing the world, as we’ve all done for decades, (net result = price/income reductions + subsidies back to farmers,) below full costs and below “living wage” standards, such as a “reasonable” return on equity.

Again, the U.S. very clearly is the Argentinosaurus in the metaphorical global room. Our overproduction, which comes first from the failure of ‘free’ farm markets, and secondarily from the reduction and elimination of market management policies and programs by Congress since 1953, has lowered global farm prices drastically, thus greatly fostering the global rural poverty that starves the world.

GUEBERT’S MISUSE OF WORDS– IN SUPPORT OF AGRIBUSINESS

Guebert labels this as a “for-profit approach,” as if the U.S. and U.S. “agriculture” are doing this to make a profit at the expense of others, or while ignoring the needs of others. As the full data shows, however, that’s the opposite of the truth. The policies that have helped to starve the world also have run most U.S. farmers out of business, because they’ve lowered farm prices below the cost of production, (as documented above for crops like wheat, rice and corn, barley and oats, for most years since 1981). That is, in growing these crops for export, there has been no profit for the United States as a whole, and on top of that, there has been many billions of dollars in government spending. In short, Congress has pursued these policies in order for the U.S. to NOT make a profit. This anti-farmer, anti-farm state, anti-business, anti-US approach was chosen simple because it provided hidden subsidies, (from farmers,) to the U.S. and foreign buyers of these crops, the highly concentrated middlemen.

Guebert is a writer, but part of the problem here lies in the flawed choice of words that he shares with EWG and others. We’ve seen that above in his discussion of “profit.” Likewise, though he’s supposedly a farm-side writer, he strongly accepts EWG’s framing of the issue as a “food” issue, where nonfood farm products (& exports) are belittled, (as has become widespread in today’s Food Movement paradigm, see the link below). This is a seriously inadequate paradigm, as starvation from overproduction and cheap prices can only be grasped when food and nonfood farm products are viewed jointly. In fact, in EWG’s call for increased production of food to maintain cheap prices, or to make them cheaper, (as quoted above,) is really a call for increased starvation. The nonfood uses of farm products greatly help keep global farm prices from totally collapsing. Any attempt to reduce nonfood usage to increase food availability would be devastating to hungry nations, which are, overwhelmingly, farming countries. This food-centric, anti-nonfood narrative is a widespread flaw in the narrative of the Food Movement, the Environmental Movement, mainstream media and beyond. It’s part of a broad misuse of the word “food” in the lexicon of these mainstream and movement sectors. (https://www.lexiconoffood.com/post/food-its-misunderstood-misused-term )

Additionally, like EWG, Guebert’s analysis tends to bash farmers while ignoring the role of agribusiness, in part by lumping the interests of “agriculture” proper in with the interests of agribusiness, when in fact, they’re overwhelmingly opposites. (cf. https://zcomm.org/zblogs/smashing-the-illusion-farmer-clout–a-white-paper-by-brad-wilson/) We see this in his claim that “farmers, especially the Big Boys,” were opposed to exposure of farm subsidy absurdities. In so doing he lumps farmers in with agribusiness buyers, absurdly assuming a united front for the “American ag community.” So here too he comes across as a misinformed “foodie,” who doesn’t adequately understand the meaning of words like “farm” and “agriculture,” as misused in the dominant lexicon. (See: https://www.lexiconoffood.com/post/farm-term-problems-its-own )

We see, then, that in a number of ways, Guebert, supports and expands upon the narrative of EWG (and that of the Des Moines Register,) that misinterprets the issues in ways that rely on, and add support to, the narrative of agribusiness exploiters. First, the issue is pay the world, not feed the world. Then global farmers can feed themselves and their regions. Second, U.S. agricultural productivity is an enormous factor that’s closely tied to this issue. We’re not at all irrelevant. We have no false arrogance in thinking we’re a big deal globally. We are the big deal, and so it’s essential that we be properly understood, which we are not, in these sources. Third, the solution is in the direction of reduced production, not the increased overproduction that agribusiness wants. Guebert supports EWG’s mistaken call for policies that will starve the world. Fourth, this problem hasn’t arisen from a quest for “profit” for U.S. “agriculture.” It’s arisen from policies and programs where the US, in it’s agriculture, has been losing money on farm exports over decades. Fifth, the interests of farmers and agribusiness are clearly NOT much the same, as claimed by agribusiness, by EWG, and here by Guebert. They’re opposites. Sixth, the key sector that has had the competence to see through the myths is the Family Farm Movement, which has long centered it’s focus on the issues of farm justice, including those affecting global hunger, and it’s misrepresentation in the dominant narrative, and among those well meaning critics who have become, in important ways, duped by the dominant narrative.

In sum, Guebert and EWG are correct about some things. In the end, they’re correct that global farmers can feed themselves and their regions. As we’ve seen, however, they cannot do this well without assistance from the U.S., the dominant global exporter. As it turns out, it’s because we’re such a dominant agricultural producer that the U.S. has been colonized by global agribusiness, which has forced us to overproduce, and to lose money on farm exports. This in turn impoverishes global farmers, causing hunger. Meanwhile, farmers themselves have been the main groups fighting against this, on behalf of themselves, on behalf of food consumers, taxpayers and the environment, and on behalf of the world’s hungry.

Soybean farmers have also been paid less as production has increased.

soybeans-yield-value

In ancient times, tribute and taxes from agriculture provided the wealth of empires. Likewise, bank robber Willie Sutton is reputed to have stated that he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is.” The role of the U.S. agriculture in recent decades is quite similar. Agribusiness exploits us directly because that’s where the productivity is. That exploitation is the larger issue that has long been misunderstood by groups like the Environmental Working Group. Today, it’s also misrepresented by farm reporter Alan Guebert.

FOR FURTHER READING

https://zcomm.org/zblogs/can-x-feed-the-world-wrong-question/

https://zcomm.org/zblogs/wto-africa-group-with-nffc-not-ewg-by-brad-wilson/

https://zcomm.org/zblogs/via-campesina-with-nffc-support-for-fair-farm-prices-by-brad-wilson/

https://zcomm.org/zblogs/false-on-the-food-poverty-crisis-25-online-examples-by-brad-wilson/

https://zcomm.org/zblogs/food-crisis-primer/ Cf. Next link.

On the chronic failure of ‘free’ farm markets (conservative/neoliberal economic assumptions,) see the “Why We Have Farm Bills” in https://zcomm.org/zblogs/farm-justice-primer-a-farm-bill-primer/

On Alan Guebert’s misunderstandings of the basic farm issues see: https://zcomm.org/zblogs/the-room-is-underwater-rebutting-alan-gueberts-insuring-elephants/

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