I like the word “hubris.” It kind of rolls off your tongue. It is one of those words that sounds like what it means. The word comes from the ancient Greek word which meant to shame or humiliate someone for the gratification of the abuser. An act of hubris was against the law and considered one of the greatest crimes in ancient Greek society. In modern usage it means overconfident pride or arrogance.

We are often guilty of hubris.

Take for example the public relations campaign which brags that American farmers feed the world.  We cite statistics like the commonly touted assertion that each American farmer feeds 155 people. That is the number that some farm groups’ public relations efforts and the news media give us. That number is compared to the 26 people each farmer is said to have fed in 1960. The implication is that we, American farmers, are nearly 6 times as productive and efficient as were farmers in the 1960s.

I must admit, I’ve always wondered how the number of people we each supposedly feed is calculated. Are the people fed the number of people in the U.S. or around the world? Are these the people who eat an adequate diet or just enough to stay alive? I’ve searched and searched and can’t find an explanation. My rough calculations indicate that we think we’re feeding half of the world’s population with our work. Is that hubris? My math points out one of the major flaws of simplistic statistics. In 1960 there were 4 million farmers in the United States. There are now just over 2 million farmers in America. So, if our farms are twice as big and there are now half as many farmers, that statistical manipulation means our real production has not increased as much as it might appear.

It is arrogant to believe that we feed the world. More than 13 percent of the world’s population is undernourished.There are 795 million undernourished people in the world today. That means one in nine people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life. Hunger and malnutrition are in fact the number one risk to health worldwide — greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Most of the world’s hungry are women and children. A child somewhere in the world dies from malnutrition every six seconds. A large percentage of the world’s poor and hungry are rural and, ironically, are farmers.

The world is not being fed.

We, American farmers, don’t even feed Americans. We export millions of tons of grains and livestock products, but we are dependent on imported food for most of the fruit, vegetables and nuts we eat. Our country is now a net importer of food. We buy more than we sell. Even in this land of abundance, 12.4 percent of all children live in households that do not always have enough food to eat. Use of food pantries and feeding programs is estimated to have increased by 40 percent in the last year. Growing numbers of small, rural communities are becoming “food deserts” as grocery wholesalers decide small town stores are not profitable enough to justify shipping food to them.

In our hubris we assume that farmers in developing countries do not know how to farm. We have promoted our way of farming in places where our system of expensive purchased inputs and monoculture do not work. Poverty, lack of tools, access to land and even hunger itself make our capital intensive form of farming unsustainable. Our agricultural techniques and crops may not be well suited to the climate, the soil, the culture or the resources of the community. While the number of hungry in the world in 2010 was down slightly from 2009, the number is still higher than in 2008. We’ve hardly solved the problem. In addition we are told we will need to double food production in the next 50 years to feed of the world’s growing population.

Increasing American farmers’ production twofold to feed the world’s growing population is going to be a challenge regardless of the techniques and technology used. Maybe it is our own hubris telling us we must. Perhaps feeding the rest of the world is not something we need to do. Research is pointing to new kinds of farming which incorporate soil building through the planting of nitrogen fixing trees and cover crops. Water management and plant breeding by farmers of indigenous crops for their own farms can help rural people feed themselves and others. Increasing the productivity on these farms is relatively easy and cost effective. Research is showing that productivity of small farmers in developing countries can be doubled in 10 years by using what is being called “agroecology,” a system that mimics nature, grows its own fertility and grows food for the farmer and for others. This makes sense as a way to feed the world because half of the world’s undernourished are farmers and rural residents.  At the same time, soil erosion is decreased, organic matter increases in degraded soils and carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere.

There is no question that our dependence on foreign oil increases our nation’s sense of insecurity. Our dependence on foreign food will, in the future, create even greater potential conflicts. Shipping food across the world or even across our own country will become more impractical as the price of fuel increases. One of the biggest barriers to finding local food in rural communities is the lack of production. Small town farmers’ markets are growing, but the number of consumers wanting fresh, locally produced foods far outnumbers the vendors growing and selling produce. The use of “agroecology” on small acreages producing locally consumed fruits, nuts and vegetables could increase the availability of nutritious, fresh foods in rural communities in America as well. We could learn from successful projects in other parts of the world if we are not too proud to admit there might be more than one way to grow food.

Hubris is a dangerous thing.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains