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Let’s Feed Ourselves

Squeeze almost any official of almost any agbiz or farm group and the words “Feed the world” will cross their lips. The phrase is this century’s “Manifest Destiny,” a near-imperative, a cornerstone of our export-directed ag policy.

But this ambition, according to the number-crunching crew in Daryll Ray’s ag shop at the University of Tennessee, has been more of a mission statement than a mission accomplished.

In an April Policy Pennings column, Ray notes that the combined 2010-11 U.S. exports for barley, corn, oats, rice and wheat are 18 per cent less than they were 30 years ago. Add in soybeans and exports increased, but only by “3.8 per cent from the beginning to the end of the 30-year period,” says Ray.

That small achievement pales when compared to the rapid growth of the global market for the Big Five over the same 30 years – from “196.6 million tonnes to 261.3 million tonnes, an increase of 37.6 per cent,” Ray reports.

Viewed another way that means “the U.S. share of world exports of soybeans and the five grains declined from 58.1 per cent in 1980-81 to 36.5 per cent in 2010-11.”

Thirty years and five export-d irected Farm Bills and American farmers serve the world in the “much more modest role of residual supplier” than global grocer.

This worldly focus, however, has food and nutrition consequences at home, suggests Angie Tagtow, an Iowa-based registered dietitian and public health researcher.

The 1978 U.S. Ag Census showed 50 per cent of all Iowa farms grew hogs, 60 per cent grew cattle, 56 per cent grew hay and 34 per cent grew oats. The 2002 Census showed these segments, respectively, at 12, 33, 36 and eight per cent.

The 30-year shift to commodities means, “We’re not growing enough ‘healthy’ food to meet minimum federal guidelines for a healthy diet,” Tagtow says.

According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service in 2007, if every American followed USDA’s dietary guidelines every day, the U.S. would need 7.6 million acres more fruit production, 6.5 million acres more vegetable production and 11 billion pounds more milk than produced domestically.

We have enough, however, only – ironically – because of soaring imports.

According to USDA, the value of vegetable imports to the U.S. doubled from $3.4 billion in 1998 to $7 billion in 2007. Simultaneously, the value of fruit and nut imports nearly tripled, from $5.5 billion to $14 billion.

“We’re so focused on commodities,” says Tagtow, “that we’re increasingly relying on other countries to provide us with food.”

Searching for a balance, Tagtow and fellow dietitian Susan Roberts examined what this food policy means for Iowa, a state of agricultural bounty but not agricultural diversity. Their discoveries are detailed in “Cultivating Resilience,” a 56-page, Feb. 2011 report outlining the state’s food strengths and weaknesses.

For example, while only 0.04 per cent of all Iowa farmland grows fruits and vegetables, 85 per cent of the nearly $9 billion spent annually on food in Iowa leaves the state.

Facts like that suggest there might be a better future feeding America rather than feeding the world. Right now, we’re doing neither.

The Farm and Food File is published weekly in more

than 70 newspapers in North America. Contact Alan Guebert at

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