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The local-global food connection

Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media

The United States is the world’s leading producer and exporter of corn, which is used as livestock feed to support the increasing demand for meat in China, India and other countries with growing middle classes.

But sending corn, soybeans and other food abroad is just part of the equation when it comes to figuring out how we’ll feed the nine billion people projected to be on the Earth in 2050.

While the U.S. has a history of food aid to the poor, World Food Prize Laureate and former international aid worker Catherine Bertini applauded bi-partisan efforts to re-focus American food policy on farming when she spoke recently at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

“The administration, now for the first time in a long time, decided yes, it’s a good idea to put more effort into agriculture development,” she said.

That means helping farmers succeed, not just distributing food to the hungry. Governments, non-profits and private businesses all have a place in the effort. Seed companies, for example, are developing technologies specific to regions all over the globe.

“Generally the most productive genetics are the ones that are developed within the area where the plant breeding has been done,” said Mike Vander Logt, the chief operating officer of WinField, a Land-o-Lakes subsidiary. He said advances in seed technology can have global impact, but the biggest players know to innovate locally — wherever that is. If your target market is China, set up a lab there. Eventually, the technology will help Chinese farmers increase yield.

Bertini said the U.S. government’s Feed the Future program — a commitment to help ensure the world has enough to eat — emphasizes local food production. In places where people are hungry, the program supports small farming efforts because those have a ripple effect.

“The World Bank says that agricultural productivity is two to four times more effective than any other productivity in alleviating poverty,” she said.

Today, the world’s growing population relies on a combination of international trade, food aid from the rich countries to the poor as needed, and increased local production, even here in the United States.

“We need to produce as much to feed the world as we can, but also people like to eat locally grown foods, too, so there’s a case for both sides of agriculture,” said Greg Rinehart, a farmer in Boone County, Iowa.

That’s reflected on his farm. He and his family grow fruit and vegetables on 100 acres and sell at farmers’ markets. But on 700 acres, they grow traditional corn and soybeans.

“We don’t actually know exactly where it’s going,” Rinehart said of the row crops, “But we know it’s not being wasted, it’s being used somewhere in the food chain, whether in the United States or being exported to many countries in the world.”

Given the rich soil and well-developed infrastructure here, Midwestern farmers are likely to continue playing an important role on the world food scene.But Iowa State University economist Bruce Babcock said the goal of domestic production around the world isn’t as far-off as many people seem to think.

“The overwhelming supply of calories and food that is consumed in most countries comes from the country that is the consuming country,” he said.

So the persistent challenge is distribution. And even the rich countries haven’t yet figured out how to get food to everyone who needs it.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.