I was in 9th grade the first time I heard that, in 2050, there are going to be 9 billion people in the world. At the time, 2050 was about a million years in the future, as unfathomable as the amount of food it would take to feed 9 billion humans.
Since then, I’ve encountered endless speeches, articles, and tweets about how farmers (America’s in particular) are now feeding, and/or must in the future feed, the world. We hear it from all sides, from those defending genetically modified crops to those advocating for the end of animal agriculture to those looking to turn farming into a tool to counter climate change.
Many of the world’s wealthy are taking an interest as well, with research and demonstration farms becoming the pet projects of many a billionaire or major company. Their aim seems to be to show that, with the right intention and “a little startup capital,” farms can feed the world without destroying it. (Which is extra rich, given that several of the world’s billionaires could pay to end world hunger, and thus ‘feed the world,’ right now)
But the thing is, the idea that farmers feed the world is a total crock.
To be clear, hunger and malnutrition are very serious and important issues. But despite the fact that we grow more than enough calories to feed everyone on Earth, even in the richest nation, there’s probably 100 people within 5 miles of where I’m sitting who are malnourished.
Grocery stores are throwing away mountains of food. We truck fields of day-old lettuce straight to landfills. If farmers were worried about hunger, Iowa and Nebraska wouldn’t be planted with millions of acres of corn that goes into gas tanks.
The question of ‘how do we farm to feed the world’ doesn’t even really make sense. It’s not one that farmers can or do act on. It’s unanswerable, and the fact that we keep asking it anyway is a problem.
How to think about feeding the world
Feeding the world is an emergent property.
According to Wikipedia (no shame, go donate);
Emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own. These properties or behaviors emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole.
You, in fact, express emergent properties. You are composed of parts; blood cells, bone cells, stem cells, tissue cells. But we can’t look at individual cell, say, a blood cell and see a human body. Nothing about the nature of blood cells alone help us predict what a human body will look like. Blood and other types of cells organize themselves in ways that can’t be predicted by looking at any individual. That’s the key to emergence — the acts of individual units don’t obviously add up to what the whole eventually does.
Feeding the world is the emergent quality, on the human body level of organization. Farms are cells, only one element of the system. You can stare at farms as long as you want, pick them apart, put them back together, change the location and the size and the practices, add a bunch of money and take it away. But no matter what you do to manipulate them, they won’t show you how to feed the world, just like a blood cell can’t tell you what a healthy human body looks like.
So What Do We Do Now?
First, acknowledge that it doesn’t make sense to put the mission of feeding the world on the shoulders of farmers. This is critical because it cuts both ways — we have to acknowledge that farmers aren’t responsible for succeeding or failing to feed the world, but also that the people working in agriculture can’t be allowed to do whatever they deem necessary in their attempt to fulfill this sacred duty.
Secondly, recognize that associating farming with feeding the world perpetuates extractive tendencies. If farms have to feed the world, then farms must maximize output. Because if they don’t grow the absolute highest quantity of crops, it implies, people will starve. But that’s fundamentally not true. Again, we already grow enough food to feed the world more than once over. We don’t need to suck every possible calorie out of our soils, water, forests, or animals. If you believe the future for agriculture is in optimizing farms for their conditions, local markets, and people, and not in bleeding the landscape dry, then it doesn’t make sense to associate farming with feeding the world. The idea is actually harmful, it celebrates maximum output and demonizes farms that prioritize their own sustainability over high yields. It gives cover to bad actors and saddles the rest with the guilt of global hunger.
Finally, though farms are not the only relevant factor in feeding the world, healthy parts do improve wholes. If we can make farms really stable, healthy, and sustainable, then they would contribute to a system that could feed the world. But we’ll definitely need a lot of other parts; effective distribution, peace, political stability, markets, infrastructure (the bone, tissue, and stem cells, so to say). But it’s worth remembering that when someone says they’ve figured out how to farm to feed the world, that’s like saying that if we just change all our cells to blood cells then we’d be the healthiest human body around.
So stop saying that farmers need to feed the world. Stop writing it. Stop thinking it. Don’t let people around you use the catchy cliche as an excuse or a justification. Don’t take it for granted to be true when you read it or hear it, and push back on it when you can.
Because it’s only by digging deeper, by pressing ourselves and others to learn about and understand the complexity of our food systems and all the factors that effect them, that we can start doing the real work.
Thanks for reading! You might also enjoy exploring more about modern food and agriculture, so I’ll just leave this here. Sarah Mock