What About All of the Hungry People? Local Food Myth Number 2.

Joel Salatin writes in his book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World:  “The first supermarket supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. That is not very long ago. Until then, where was all the food? Dear folks, the food was in homes, gardens, local fields, and forests. It was near kitchens, near tables, near bedsides. It was in the pantry, the cellar, the backyard.”   In so writing Mr. Salatin is addressing one of the most persistent and irritating myths about local food, namely that it cannot feed a growing global population.  In this and the following series of posts I want to echo Joel Salatin and perhaps shed light on the origins of this particular myth and why it’s so dangerous.

First, it is important to keep in mind one of the underlying, nearly universally un-examined and most importantly, false premises of the idea that local food cannot feed the world.  That premise being that global population is outstripping global food production and that this problem will only be exacerbated as global population rises to 9 billion by mid century.  FALSE!

The truth is that current agricultural practices produce more food than the world needs.  A lot more.  This information is widely available but not widely reported on or known.  A recently released report from Tufts University highlighted the issues around this premise.  In  “Can We Feed the World in 2050? A Scoping Paper to Assess
the Evidence,” the paper’s author, Timothy A. Wise, attacks this notion head on by dissecting many of the assumptions and allegedly scientific models that lead many to question whether the world can feed itself by the middle of the century.  The first, and most important for our discussion is whether or not the world is feeding itself now.  According to Wise and his colleagues global agriculture currently produces well over two thousand calories for ever man women and child on the planet.  Vandana Shiva, the world renowned Indian food sovereignty activist puts this into more understandable terms (backed up by data from global agricultural monitoring groups like those within the U.N.).  The world currently produces enough food to feed 9 billion to 11 billion people annually (depending upon which organization’s numbers you choose.  Let’s choose the 9 billion to be conservative).

Now, this can go off on a very important tangent regarding the politics and horror behind the fact that humans produce enough food to feed more than the entire population and yet there are about 1 billion people who are malnourished (not to mention about 800 million who are over-nourished).  But this is a blog about local food.  So let’s look at that piece of the pie.  And it’s a big piece.

The average U.S. citizen is under the impression that everyone eats like us (unless they’re dying of hunger) and that everyone’s food is obtained like ours.  In fact, this is wildly inaccurate.  It turns out that roughly 70% of the world’s food is produced by peasants and small holdings farmers, that is people who grow their food on and own less than two acres of land.  That will seem like a complete fabrication to you I’m sure.  It did to me the first time I heard it and I wanted to believe it.  So I looked it up.  This is corroborated in several reports by several organizations from the U.N. to Via Campesina.

Seventy percent of the world’s food is produced by small-scale (what we think of as ‘micro-scale’) farmers.  In other words this type of micro-scale agriculture accounts for enough food to feed 6.3 billion people.  Now for a blog post with no pictures this is already long and kudos to you for sticking it out this far.  That being said I will postpone further discussion of this reality for part two of this post.  Likely your mind is still reeling from what must be a false statistic.  70%?  How can that be?  Keep in mind there are over 7 billion people on Earth.  This is a number most of us cannot begin to get our heads around.  It’s like thinking about the universe.  Mind numbing.  But for the purposes of our discussion we need to understand that only a tiny fraction of a fraction of that number live like us.  Very few people in the world have the luxury (or misfortune depending upon how you look at it) to be able to get into a car and drive to a supermarket and buy whatever they want whenever they want.  Even in other ‘super power’ nations there are huge numbers of people producing their own food both vegetables and meats and trading with neighbors.  In most other countries in the world people have their own gardens and a few hens in the driveway.

Not only can local food feed the world, in almost every other place on Earth…it is.  Indeed, there are many places in the United States where this is becoming the reality.  Why?  Well, to leave you with a nice little nugget to chew on until I can take up the pen again consider this.  If there is any sort of disruption in the global food network, the average grocery store contains enough food at any one time to feed its customers for three days.  And that’s assuming that, in the type of disruption in which this statistic would matter everyone maintained their current, polite, leisurely shopping habits.  In a situation like that all those peasants we talked about (including yours truly) will be sitting, and eating, like kings.  Local food.  Eat well – be well.

Ryan Parker

About Ryan Parker

Ryan Parker is a farmer, writer, artist and musician. He currently lives in Central Maine with his wife, two children, a golden retriever, some pigs and chickens. He raises pastured and forested animals and grows a diverse range of vegetables without synthetic chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or taxpayer subsidies.