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Policies give lie to farmers’ mantra

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Some people believe in tillage, others in no till. Some people believe in planning, others in fate.

Ask an American farmer if he believes a big part of his destiny includes feeding the world and he’ll likely say, “Yep.”

The answer is quick and sincere because somewhere in every farmer and rancher’s makeup is a “feed the world” gene. Our fathers probably picked it up back in the 1970s. They passed it to us and now it’s just part of our DNA.

But believe as we may, the numbers — here, there, everywhere — continue to conspire against us. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the world has never produced more food, fed more people and, simultaneously, never had so many hungry people.

Recent FAO data shows that about 13 per cent of the world’s population, or nearly one billion people, now live in chronic hunger. In 1981 the percentage was higher, 21, but the number was 150 million lower.

Part of the problem is math. The world’s people simply outreproduce what the world’s farmers and ranchers increasingly produce.

If forecasts prove accurate, however, birth rates will decline and global population will peak near nine billion in 2050. That suggests global hunger will peak, hopefully, in the next 40 years, too.

It also suggests that global hunger has a life of its own. Sure, we send the world massive tonnages of grains, red meat, poultry and other foodstuffs; record dollar amounts, in fact, in 2011.

But very tiny amounts of U.S. food exports are sent to hungry nations.

Indeed, explains a new report from the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, in 2009 “72 per cent of all U.S. corn exports went to the top five export destinations” — Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan and Egypt — “while only nine per cent went to the 70 nations designated by the United Nations FAO as Low-Income Food-Deficient (LIFD).”

The story is similar in soybeans: “In 2009, more than half of U.S. soybean exports went to China. After China, the largest export destinations… were Mexico, Japan and the European Union. LIFD (food-deficient nations) received only one per cent of the total.”

Neither fact is an indictment of U.S. farmers. Each, however, is a direct consequence of U.S. farm policy. While we may believe our destiny includes feeding the world’s hungry, Farm Bills are directed toward selling food to the world’s wealthy.

And that makes perfect sense because you can’t sell corn or wheat or beef or pork to people who have no money.

But government policy plays a hand, too. “While corn production rose 28 per cent from 2000-09,” Julia Olmstead writes in the IATP report, corn “exports only increased two per cent over the same period, mainly due to increased demand for corn for ethanol production.”

As a nation we made policy choices that directed corn to be planted for fuel on many acres once planted for food. “From 1999 to 2009,” Olmstead writes, “the number of acres of wheat (sown) declined by six per cent, rice by 13 per cent and peanuts by a startling 27 per cent.”

All are crops consumed directly by humans, she adds.

Kinda tough to feed the world if you’re fuelling Escalades and Range Rovers.

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