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Does American ag feed the world? Not if you focus on the hungry countries

Wealthy countries buy meat and livestock feed; poor countries get staples, and less than they used to.

American agricultural goods exported to poor countries were primarily grains and staples.

We’ve heard it all our lives: American farmers feed the world.

Once it was a simple expression of pride. Since the 1970s it has morphed into a justification  for resisting changes in industrial-scale agricultural practices that would reduce environmental harm from pesticides, runoff, excessive groundwater pumping … the list goes on and on.

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But if feeding the world’s hungry has become a handy rationalization for unfettered farming, the slogan is increasingly taking on the tone of pressing moral imperative:

The world’s population is on track to reach 9 billion by 2050 and that will require increasing global food output by somewhere between 60 and 100 percent. Nobody’s in a better position to tackle that challenge than American farmers, who already feed the world.

But do they?

Some statistics from a piercing analysis published yesterday by the Environmental Working Group, based on fairly simple calculations from United Nations and U.S. Department of Agriculture data regarding this country’s 25 largest ag export products in 2015:

  • America’s top 20 customers for those products — 19 nations plus the European Union — got 86 percent of the total value of the exports, or about $114.4 billion.
  • All of these countries rank fairly high in a U.N. rating of development status — think Canada (the No. 1 importer), the EU (4), Japan (5), South Korea (6), Australia (14), Saudi Arabia (16).
  • With two exceptions — India (18) and Guatemala (20) — these countries also rank fairly low in the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s scoring of hunger and malnourishment. (India and Guatemala share a middling rank of “moderately high.”)
  • For the 19 nations of the world that rank as hungriest in the FAO scoring, U.S. exports were far smaller, contributing on average 2.3 percent of total food supply. Looking at this flow from the origin end of the pipeline, only one-half of 1 percent of all U.S. ag exports in 2015 went to the 19 hungriest countries — and fully 63 percent of that stream went to just two of them, Haiti and Yemen.
  • Collectively, the richest group received 158 times as much imported U.S. food as the poorest.

The EWG report also looked at historical data and found that these patterns haven’t changed much in the past 10 years, especially in regarded to our wealthier customers; membership in the top 20 has changed little and their aggregate share of U.S. ag exports averaged 85 percent over the decade.

It’s a slightly different story with the poor countries, to which exports have actually declined. America’s contribution to their food supply “has not changed significantly since 2004, ranging from a low of 2 percent to a high of 4.4 percent from 2004 through 2013, but the U.S. share of total food aid has dropped.”

In 2004, the U.S. contributed 78.1 percent of the food aid to the hungriest countries, but by 2013 it was down to 48.9 percent. The share of the hungriest countries’ total food supplies provided by food aid and food exports from all sources increased from 16 percent in 2004 to 25.1 percent in 2013.

Together, food exports and food aid from the U.S. constituted an inconsequential amount of the 19 undernourished countries’ total food supplies [in 2015]. … Overall, food aid and gross food imports to the 19 undernourished countries accounted for 25.1 percent of their total food supplies, dwarfing the 2.3 percent U.S. contribution.

As you might expect, the types of food exports going to rich versus poor countries also differs considerably. For the rich countries, exports were dominated by meat and dairy products, as well as animal feed to be used in producing their own meat and dairy products.

 For the poor countries, it was primarily grains and staples.

Today, most agricultural exports from the United States go to countries whose citizens can afford to pay for them.

Meat and dairy products, along with animal feed, accounted for 50 percent of all U.S. agriculture exports to the top 20 destinations in 2015. … Just seven products accounted for  $35.6 billion of total agricultural export value in 2015. Soybeans and soybean meal alone made up 18 percent ($21.1 billion) of total exports. …

Hardly any of the agricultural export value going to the 19 hungriest countries was in animal feed in 2015, and over half of the value was in food grains. In the hungriest countries, animal feed made up just 2 percent of the export value ($16.8 million). Food grains were at 59 percent ($426.4 million); fruits, vegetables and nuts were at 9 percent ($67.5 million); meat and dairy were at  22 percent ($156.9 million); and “other” was at 8 percent ($56.5 million). 

The EWG report agrees with the contention of American agribusiness that efficient U.S. production practices keep food prices down, but sees a downside to this, too:

Although the United States does not provide much of the 19 hungriest countries’ food supplies, 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.

In 2012, in fact, the drought that slashed U.S. crop production drove up food prices globally. At the height of the drought  in July 2012, global food prices were  6 percent higher than in previous months. … 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.

What else should we be doing? EWG argues that it would be far better for American agriculture to help foster sustainable, local agriculture in hungry countries to produce not only more food but more income — which, of course, would tend to stay in place rather than flowing here. Support for education and infrastructure would be good, too.

And while we all wait for hell to freeze over, EWG would also like U.S. agribusiness to simply drop some of its pretense about its role in the world.

To 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.

The United States has a critically important role to play in combating global hunger and poverty, but there is no moral imperative attached to sending more and more meat, animal feed and other agricultural products to parts of the world that have the means to afford those products. Worse, rhetoric about U.S. farmers and agribusinesses feeding the world distracts us from seeing what we could and should do that would really help to end hunger.

Even the hungriest countries produce most of their own food. The most important roles the United States can play are in helping them do a better job of feeding themselves and ensuring that their farmers make a good living.

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The full report, “Feeding the World: Think U.S. Agriculture Will End World Hunger? Think Again,” can be found here.