The Very Heavy Baggage of the Term “Feeding the World”


By Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care

“Feeding the world” is a common slogan in agricultural circles being employed to illustrate everything from growing population challenges to the need for new technology.

Unfortunately, it’s also a phrase that doesn’t really work, and not because people don’t care.

While it’s true many Canadians are not overly concerned about the food security in foreign countries – at least, not in comparison to the needs of their own family and community – there are also many people who do care. Those people work for NGOs, governments, media, advocacy groups, and academia. They are relevant to us all because they help form policy, social movements, direct resources, and more. To them, using the “feeding the world” argument is irresponsible.

Indeed, from an international development perspective, touting the phrase with the need to produce MORE food can even be damaging to both ourselves as well as the world’s impoverished multitudes.

In many cases people are not starving or malnourished because they can’t find food – they’re starving or malnourished because they can’t pay for the food that’s already available

A growing population inevitably requires more food, and the fact that nine billion people will inhabit this planet by 2050 means producing more food is certainly a necessary task. When it comes to emergency relief, sending food to a starving or malnourished person in Ethiopia, Bangladesh – or, let’s be honest, even some parts of Canada – also makes logical sense. As citizens of a global world, after all, we have a responsibility to help those in need. 

The caveat is, however, to not assume hunger stops once the skid of cornmeal arrives at that remote village. In many cases people are not starving or malnourished because they can’t find food – they’re starving or malnourished because they can’t pay for the food that’s already available. It’s an important distinction because it indicates issues of financial independence, not the physical act of finding the next meal.

Because the phrase “feeding the world” doesn’t inherently help us understand why people can’t feed themselves in the first place, it makes logical sense for people concerned food security to have an issue with it. If the core problems that led to the person’s destitution remain – war, lack of industry, unfriendly or disconnected government policies, etc.  – a few square meals won’t make a lasting impact, and another skid of cornmeal will inevitably have to be dispatched.

In an unfortunate catch-22, this cycle of free food shipments can even lead to negative pressures on local economies, making dependence on foreign food a self-perpetuating process.

Such circumstances might seem a bit grandiose, but it’s a reality that has affected many communities across the globe. The massive surplus that farms in developed countries can produce is colossal in comparison to their developing world counterparts, and that surplus makes its real hard for the latter to compete.

Let’s say you’re a farmer in Africa. You rely on a small acreage of sorghum for your income. Then one day shipments of cheap – or even free – grain arrives from North America. That cheap grain is available for much lower prices than what you can produce food for, and the generally poor community is doing the logical thing and stretching their dollar as far as possible. Now you’re out of business because you can’t compete with the influx of cheap imported foodstuffs, and in an ironic twist, become yourself dependent on that same cheap grain.

Now ask yourself, how would producing more food here help this circumstance?

Think about that in the context of your own farm business. Have you ever worried about the return on your soybeans because Brazil produced a really good crop? Fretted that you wouldn’t be able to compete with cheaper dairy products from abroad if the market opens? If over time your ability to competitively produce food disappeared, how safe would you feel depending on another country’s surplus? Most of all, would you feel better if the countries you end up relying on starting touting the phrase “feeding Canada”?

The point here is that all of us have to worry about the same things to some extent, but farmers and the general populations of the less developed world have to contend with yet greater challenges – shortfalls in technology, a lack government safety nets, and so on. When we talk about feeding the world, it might be worthwhile to specify whether we mean our duty to do so, or our duty to help everyone feed themselves.

In the meantime, there are a lot of powerful groups and individuals who, for better or worse, are very concerned about food security, and “feeding the world” in the way Canadian agriculture continues to tout it, may not have any relevance to their mission.

The next time you use or hear someone say “feeding the world,” think about what that is really being said – and the different ways people interpret that phrase.

3 thoughts on “The Very Heavy Baggage of the Term “Feeding the World”

    1. A very thoughtful and thought provoking article. we need to refine our thinking to ‘sustainably feeding 9 billion by 2050’. Adding the word ‘sustainably’ brings in the author’s points and a few more. We do not really expect to grow our basic agricultural exports by producing for impoverished peoples, anyway. The NGOs are correct that this is a completely different challenge. We should be talking about the political stability that allows those local farmers to invest to move from subsistence agriculture to an economically productive one. We need to talk about the growth in the global middle class, where our future growing food markets will be… moving from 3 or 4 to 5 or 6 billion middle class will dramatically expand global food markets.

  1. The big thing is you have to feed your family first. The other is that we don’t get to 9 billion unless the food is there first. We won’t wake up one day and say omg there’s 9 billion people how do we feed them. If production stays static so will population.

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