In 1999, IATP released a ground-breaking report called Feeding the World that debunked the oft-claimed argument that increased U.S. grain exports decrease global hunger. In reality, the report revealed, grain exports went overwhelmingly to wealthy countries, and almost not at all to the nations struggling most with malnourishment.
Today we've released an update of that report that takes a fresh look at the myths and facts around the notion of feeding the world. We wanted to know how things have changed in the twelve years since the original Feeding the World was published, and specifically, if the increase in U.S. grain exports we've seen over the last decade have made a dent in alleviating global hunger.
The short answer is no. U.S. grain exports still go overwhelmingly to wealthy countries. But at the same time, the story has gotten more complicated. One of the biggest changes since 1999 has been the emergence of China as a major grain importer—they are now the primary destination for most U.S. soybean exports. The Chinese government has made a very strategic decision to build up a hog industry based largely on imported soybeans (for more details, see the recent IATP report, Feeding China's Pigs. Some may argue that this has had a postive impact on Chinese food security, but in fact it has contributed to the demise of small- and mid-scale hog producers and leaves the country vulnerable when the cost of imported soybeans increases and in cases of crop loss and shortages.
On the whole, the connection between increased U.S. grain exports and decreased global hunger is just as dubious today as it was in 1999. Unfortunately, "feeding the world" is still used as an argument to promote everything from pesticides to genetically engineered crops to wasteful and ecologically harmful expansions of Mississippi River locks and dams.
Improving food security around the world is much more complicated than simply increasing grain production. We won't see sustainable decreases in hunger until we address the root causes of poverty and inequality. Creating programs and policies that help small- and mid-sized farmers here in the U.S. and around the world establish and maintain diverse, resilient farms where they can earn living wages and provide food for local markets is a great place to start.