Feed the World? Feed the Village First

This article is based on a position paper authored by Fred Kirschenmann with input by Mark Ritchie, Feeding the Village First, adopted by the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society on 2/6/99.

"Why are American farmers investing so heavily in expanding ag export markets, when the richest, most valuable market in the history of mankind—and the market the rest of the world’s farmers want access to through upcoming free trade talks—is right here in the US?" -Alan Guebert

Globalization has become our mantra. In the current climate of economic deregulation, we are told that the evolution of a global economy is inevitable and in our best interest. The proclaimed benefits of globalization, however, are not based on scientific certainty. Instead, they are based on a belief system about how the world works. And globalization is not the only belief system available to us to shape our future.

In agriculture, globalization is not only a mantra, it is a moral imperative. The American farmer is reminded over and over again that he or she has a responsibility to feed the world.

Our blind faith in globalization is largely responsible for the problems we face today in agriculture. With the collapse of Asian economies last year, American farmers saw the prices of most commodities plummet. Most family farmers have few options available for survival except to await a huge government subsidy package that will perhaps tide them over until the global economy springs back into action. How many of Nebraska’s family farmers will go out of business before that happens?

These days, if you aren’t in favor of globalization you’re anti-trade or protectionist. Such a black and white view of economics stifles creative thought about how we can tackle the serious problems faced by family farmers and the millions of people in the world who don’t have enough to eat.

North Dakota farmer Fred Kirschenmann points out that international and inter-tribal trade is as old as human history. In the last half century, archaeologists have found evidence of extensive international trade among ancient societies. Arrowheads made from a particular kind of flint rock found only in North Dakota can be found across North and South America. American Indians traded food and goods extensively between tribes.

However, indigenous people made sure that the needs of their own villages were met before they engaged in trading their surplus production. In the case of food and agriculture, indigenous people would feed the village first, and then trade surplus food.

How much of the food grown in Nebraska actually gets eaten in Nebraska? I would guess that the amount is small. Most Nebraska farmers raise grain for livestock feed, a majority of which leaves the state. Most Nebraska livestock also leaves the state. Little of the beef and pork raised by Nebraska farmers ends up behind our supermarket counters.

In other words, Nebraska farmers raise low-value commodities for an export market and purchase imported, value-added foods to feed their families. This is the same strategy that was used by the British in the days of colonization, and it resulted in impoverishment for the colonized nations. Many rural and urban people in Nebraska go hungry, despite the abundance of food grown in this state.

Innovative Nebraska farmers are finding ways to increase their profits and improve their quality of life by feeding the village first. Bryce, Rosemarie, Eric, and Lara Ritz of Comstock, for example, are selling their pork, beef, and poultry directly to Nebraska customers rather than on the open market.

The Ritz’s raise their quality meats without hormones and antibiotics. They sell some of their meat to their neighbors in Comstock. Their surplus is sold to Lincoln customers through the Haymarket Farmers’ Market. Their humane production practices, concern for resource conservation, and great tasting products have even convinced a few vegetarians to become "part-time" meat eaters.

With an abundance of excellent agricultural land and a low population, Nebraska farmers grow far more food than Nebraskans can eat. And there is nothing wrong with trading that surplus nationally or internationally. Instead of selling low-value commodities at the grain elevator, however, Nebraska farmers could pocket higher profits by growing and marketing high-value meat, dairy, and other food products to customers on the East and West Coasts who will gladly pay a premium price for quality and resource stewardship.

But what about feeding the world? What about the masses of hungry people in developing countries who need cheap grain to survive?

Perhaps hungry people can meet their food needs without depending entirely upon cheap, imported grain. According to Fred Kirschenmann, over a decade of research has shown that hunger is not the result of food shortages. Hunger is the result of social inequities and the lack of access to food producing resources, not lack of production.

E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, pointed out 25 years ago that what we need to keep the world fed is not mass production, but production by the masses. Rather than feeding the world, we should help the world feed themselves.

An assumption regarding world hunger is that the only way to produce enough food for a rapidly growing population is to step up mass production of a few specialized commodities using new inputs and technologies. However, large-scale production of a few crops like corn and wheat creates problems that may actually threaten world food security.

When you raise hundreds of acres of one crop, you create a vast habitat for the pests and diseases that can compromise yields. And these pests routinely develop resistance to the chemicals that are used to control them. As a result, crop losses due to pests have increased. On a world basis, crop losses due to insects, weeds, and diseases were 34.9% in 1965 and rose to 42.1% in 1988-1990.1  Planting diverse kinds of crops and using management practices such as crop rotations can break these pest, weed, and disease cycles without a heavy reliance on chemicals that will, over time, become ineffective.

Communities, and often individual farms, have unique ecological conditions that impact food production. It simply makes sense to craft farming systems that fit local soil types, climate, and preferences for certain kinds of foods. It doesn’t make sense to rely on a few multinational corporations to develop seed varieties that will supposedly work for farmers and consumers all over the world. If farmers work to develop local plant varieties and farming systems that yield dependably in their specific ecological regions, the village will be fed.

Developing local food and farming systems will require substantial changes in education and public policy. Land grant universities need to help farmers understand the ecological neighborhoods in which they farm and provide assistance in developing farming systems that fit local conditions. Public subsidies that support industrial-style agriculture could be shifted into research and outreach programs that would help farmers develop local crop varieties and local markets. State and local governments could require that schools, prisons, and other public institutions purchase 25% of the food that they use from local farmers.

As a consumer (and all of us are consumers, even farmers), you have a great deal of power to change the way that food is grown and sold. Every time you buy food that is imported from a great distance, you vote with your food dollar for a global economy. When you obtain food locally through a farmers market, Community Supported Agriculture farm, a backyard or community garden, or a direct marketing relationship, you vote for a food system and a future that feeds the village first.

-Summary by Cris Carusi

 1 Lewis, WJ et.al. 1997. "A Total System Approach to Sustainable Pest Management." National Academy of Sciences, Proceedings, Vol. 94.

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