More Food = More Hunger? The Productivist Paradigm Paradox

farmer's market

Photo: empracht

Can organic agriculture feed the world? Is local food efficient? How do we feed a growing population? Questions like these are posed often in my world. On the surface, the answer is obvious: whatever system grows the most food is the best bet for addressing hunger, both today and tomorrow.

A friend recently sent me this article.

This set me to thinking, and I had something of a professional epiphany: rather than solving hunger, the push for more production at any cost makes it worse. More food=more hunger? How can that be?

A quick web search suggests that global food production per capita and hunger are both increasing. Frances Moore Lappe, one of my early professional heroes (I sat in on a class at Penn State which featured her book Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity, which  was incredibly influential on my life and career trajectory)  showed four decades ago that hunger is caused by poverty, not lack of global food supply. Yet, arguments such as the ones above (production solves hunger), including those of Dennis and Alex Avery and others, continue.  Some scholars call it the productivist paradigm.

We economists love optimization: it is the bedrock of any microeconomic theory course. Choose the level of inputs to maximize a given outcome (usually profit or utility). Our food system has set about the task of “maximize yield per production unit” (milk per cow, bushels of corn per acre) and has been wildly successful at it. Yet hunger increases.  There is a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico due to US agriculture. Diet-related illness is off the charts.  More than half of US farms lose money every year. Why?

My simple answer is that we optimizing the wrong function. Instead of maximizing  quantity, a more important goal should be something like “maximize quality of food available where people can access it.” In the single minded pursuit of yield, we are being hit by countless externalize costs such as those above. External costs are real and they will find you, whether you count them or not.

A great example to me is dairy operations. In my experience, and with few if any exceptions, the goal of our supporting education, policy and support institutions is to help farmers maximize milk per cow. Yet dairy farmers in are peril.  Without doubt the model that maximizes milk per cow is the modern confinement model. Cows spend the vast majority in barns, are brought a feed ration designed to maximize production. Manure is augured away, stored in vast lagoons and injected into fields.

I have done extensive research into the pasture-based Management Intensive Rotational Grazing  (MIRG) model of dairy production and have found in every way I have found to measure save two –milk per cow by a large margin and milk per acre by a very small one) – the MIRG model is superior. Countless studies have shown MIRG performing far better in profit per cow, profit per production unit (hundredweight) of milk, farmer and community well-being, environmental impact, animal welfare and even human (consumer) health. It is a good model for beginning farmers and small to medium sized farms , which many studies over the years have  shown to be vital to the socio-economic well-being of rural communities. Here is a paper I wrote summarizing these issues.

Dairy farmers are taught and encouraged, in many ways, to maximize milk per cow and ignore everything else. Our dominant food system says maximize yield and profit no matter what. Farmers take great pride (and rightfully so) in “feeding the world,” and the perceived inability of any alternative system to do so allows the alternative to be dismissed quite easily in many circles. But the truth is, unless we put the community and ecosystem back in – a community based, agro-ecological food and agricultural system – the hunger, the diet-related illness, the external costs, the community degradation will just get worse.

What do you think? Leave a comment or questions below. 

Posted in: Economic.