Essay

The Solution to the Global Food Crisis Isn’t More Food

There’s plenty to go around, but it’s going to the wrong places.

illustration of food and transportation
illustration of food and transportation
Vasava illustration for Foreign Policy
By , a crop scientist, author, and ex-farm worker with 25 years’ experience in the food system.

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, panicky headlines about a global wheat shortage appeared. As a crop scientist, I knew that wasn’t right. The regional supply crunch was real: Nations that source grain from the Black Sea suddenly had to order it from farther away, upsetting supply chains. But it wasn’t a global shortage. Thanks to record crops in India, Australia, and elsewhere, there was enough to feed everyone. We just had to move it. 

You wouldn’t have guessed it from the news, though. Coverage of food supply chains featured scare tactics and distortion that drove speculation and trade restrictions, worsening the problem. By early July, global commodity prices finally fell to reflect the availability of food, rather than speculation. Yet while the panic was unfounded, the suffering it caused was real, immense, and unnecessary.

THE FOOD ISSUE: This article appears in the Fall 2022 print magazine. Explore the issue.

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, panicky headlines about a global wheat shortage appeared. As a crop scientist, I knew that wasn’t right. The regional supply crunch was real: Nations that source grain from the Black Sea suddenly had to order it from farther away, upsetting supply chains. But it wasn’t a global shortage. Thanks to record crops in India, Australia, and elsewhere, there was enough to feed everyone. We just had to move it. 

You wouldn’t have guessed it from the news, though. Coverage of food supply chains featured scare tactics and distortion that drove speculation and trade restrictions, worsening the problem. By early July, global commodity prices finally fell to reflect the availability of food, rather than speculation. Yet while the panic was unfounded, the suffering it caused was real, immense, and unnecessary.

Next time, we need to get it right. Climate change, public health emergencies, and politics virtually guarantee we’ll keep seeing crunches in the food supply chain. But even in turbulent times, we can ensure food security around the world. We have the tools we need to get there.

To reach food security, though, many of us will have to abandon cherished ideas about how the food system should work. Around the world, both corporate food systems and wealthy landowners in rich nations put up heavy political and ideological barriers to commonsense practices. The food trade patterns they set up centuries ago—which rely heavily on large-scale, industrial agriculture—have left poorer countries unhealthily dependent on imports, with no other way to feed themselves when global trade falters.

Industrialized agriculture arose in the United States and in other former European colonies. Now it has been exported worldwide. It’s worth examining industrialized agriculture in its home setting to understand how policy can either entrench it or open up new possibilities. The public and policymakers have a choice: We can either continue to prop up food systems as they currently exist or invest in resilient, democratic, and sophisticated food systems to prevent future crises. 


What we think of as modern corporate agriculture started much earlier than most people realize. Maize monocultures and beef feedlots filled the Ohio Valley by the 1830s. The Whiskey Rebellion that erupted in 1791, typically framed as a taxation crisis, makes more sense as a maize overproduction crisis. Growing grain was—and still is—the fastest, lowest-effort way to monetize a remote property. Thus, those occupying newly conquered land on the young United States’ western borders planted miles of maize. But they didn’t ask whether anyone actually needed it before planting. Soon, western landowners were overwhelmed by a corn glut of their own making. They resorted to distilling it into ethanol so it’d be easier to export. Only then did whiskey taxes become a hot-button political issue.

Over time, industrialized agriculture emerged to serve the needs of a specific group: wealthy colonial landowners. Despite the rustic image American landowners cultivate, landownership has always been an affair of the middle class and up. Large-scale land speculators have long dominated U.S. land policy at the expense of traditional farmers, like the Wampanoag, the Powhatan federation, and the Susquehannock—as well as the tenants and sharecroppers of the 20th century. 

Today, around 95 percent of U.S. farms are family farms. But that doesn’t mean it’s a cottage industry. The median farmer is a millionaire after subtracting farm debts—nearly 10 times wealthier than the median U.S. household. The median U.S. farm household has made more take-home income than non-farming peers every single year since 1998. The financial realities of farm wealth are even more surprising when it comes to small farms. In the most recent statistics available, from 2010, the smallest U.S. farmers had a 38 percent higher median take-home income than non-farmers. Small farmers’ median net worth in 2020 was $889,000, around the 80th percentile of Americans.

Land politics are different everywhere but share important similarities. Nearly every country has large landowners. Sometimes they’re a colonial overclass, as in the United States, Australia, or Brazil. Sometimes they’re traditional large landowners that predate the colonial era, as in much of South Asia and pre-revolution China, or the military aristocracy that still owns much of Europe. 

An aerial picture shows wheat farms burned following Russian airstrikes in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine
An aerial picture shows wheat farms burned following Russian airstrikes in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine

An aerial picture shows wheat farms burned following Russian airstrikes in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on July 8. MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

Similar to farmers in other countries, American farmers still wield great power and attract billions of dollars in federal support. Landowners are incentivized to gatekeep discussions on the food system and only promote ideas that benefit them financially. That’s why the United States just can’t seem to get away from grain monocultures, feedlots, and other trappings of agribusiness that can upset the natural balance of soils. Landowner-oriented food policies such as subsidies and government-created pseudomarkets like biofuels distort global food systems. In times of plenty, these policies promote overproduction, glut global markets with cheap food, and undercut other farmers around the world. In food crunches, these overproduction policies paradoxically make people hungry; while there’s still more than enough food, it simply flows to feedlots, fuel tanks, and other grain disposal systems rather than hungry people. 

The international food trade limits importing countries’ ability to build their own food systems.

Indeed, the modern Black Sea grain trade—that is, the flow of wheat from Russia and Ukraine—emerged in a context where leading nations benefited significantly from poor nations having underdeveloped food systems. Dependency is good for empires because it creates biddable allies. But that’s not all. Empires also find grain exports useful for managing internal politics. Giving fertile grain lands away to political supporters has been a keystone of imperial politics since ancient Mesopotamia. The United States’ habit of putting white settlers first in line for newly conquered lands was of a kind with Russia’s projects, dating back to at least the time of Catherine the Great, to colonize the Black Sea breadbasket with various peoples it believed could be kept loyal. Once occupied by supporters, grain lands pump out food that helps further imperial ambitions. In Russia’s case, that included using land in Ukraine as a grain export depot, at horrific cost to Ukrainians. 

At first, buying cheap imported food can seem like a brilliant bargain for poorer countries: It frees up local land and labor for other things. Indeed, international food trade is, in general, a good thing. It can build redundancy that buffers regions against crop failures and other disasters. But that’s not how Britain, the United States, Russia, and other imperial powers used the food trade. Rather, they used it to create dependency and win favorable negotiating terms with other nations. The Colonies and later the United States’ food exports to Caribbean slave labor colonies ensured steady access to sugar and other tropical goods. Over time, northern landowners shifted to shipping corn and salt pork rations for sharecroppers to the American South, a trade that gave rise to both a 40-year pellagra outbreak and today’s corn-based agribusiness. Through the 20th century, this system expanded to include humanitarian aid programs that served as a price control tool to absorb U.S. gluts and trade policies that tended to cultivate food dependency in poorer nations. Similarly, Black Sea grain exports under the tsars evolved into Soviet grain diplomacy. After Ukraine’s independence, the nation naturally leaned on its farm exports for revenues. 

There’s nothing wrong with food trade in and of itself: Ukraine has been a breadbasket for arid regions around the Mediterranean Sea for nearly 3,000 years. But as it currently exists, as a tool for powerful nations to create dependency and manage their own internal politics, the international food trade limits importing countries’ ability to build their own food systems. This helps explain why in the wake of Russia’s invasion so many African and Middle Eastern countries were at risk of great food insecurity.


Grain and large-scale mechanized agriculture have their place in food systems, but they’re far from the only way to grow food. Feeding the world in a sustainable manner means diversifying beyond today’s food system, which is built on a few regional breadbaskets such as the Black Sea, the North American grain belt, and Brazil’s soy-producing states. A truly efficient food system would look quite different.

Agroforestry—or using orchards, groves, and managed forests to grow food—is a viable option for large-scale food production. Today, most people tend to consider trees a source of fruit and timber instead of staples such as starch, oil, and protein. But around the world, people have used oak, breadfruit, plantains, mesquite, oil palms, and other high-yielding trees for staple calories for millenniums. 

Cherokee, Catawba, and other Indigenous farmers in Appalachia combined maize, squash, and bean farming with chestnut forestry. Each chestnut tree dropped 50 to 100 pounds of starchy nuts per year, and there were 3 billion to 4 billion of these trees before a fungal disease drove them to near extinction in the 20th century. Chestnut forests yielded around 3 trillion to 4 trillion calories per year, or enough to provide the carbohydrate needs for today’s U.S. population about twice over. By comparison, the U.S. corn industry grows about 6 trillion calories per year. What’s more, chestnut trees mostly grew in Appalachia: hilly, thin terrain that industrial agriculture considers “unfarmable.” Indigenous communities managed these enormously productive forests with little labor and no fertilizer industry. 

Despite the blow that the de facto extinction of chestnut trees dealt to the Appalachian economy in the early 20th century, little effort has been spent on bringing these trees back. Had we started crossbreeding American chestnuts with blight-resistant Asian chestnuts when the blight began, we would have chestnut forests today. But we didn’t. In an echo of how food dependency works in international affairs, failure to invest in chestnut forests has kept Appalachia hungry, dependent on food imports, and locked into coal mining to pay for them. 

We need to stay focused on what matters: not saving the players in our current food system but feeding the public.

Properly tended fisheries, another example of local food systems, are also powerful. Many nations dependent on food imports, such as Somalia, Yemen, Lebanon, and Algeria, have coastal fisheries—but not ones that play a major role in national food security. This is because of centuries of pollution and unmanaged fishing, including industrial-scale poaching by international fleets. These nations have few resources to enforce fishing quotas. They have even fewer resources to invest in hatcheries, cleaning up pollution, and other proactive measures to rebuild fisheries.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Aquaculture can be a powerful food security tool for arid coastal nations. For instance, managed seaweed stands can provide food or industrial feedstocks similar to sugarcane and maize now. And rather than pollute watersheds as land crops can do, seaweed removes nutrients and oxygenates the water—providing for human needs, rehabilitating the environment, and strengthening fisheries at the same time. In fact, seaweed and seagrasses can remove enough carbon dioxide from seawater to counteract acidification in their area, allowing corals and shellfish to thrive. Oysters, mussels, and other filter-feeding shellfish were once cheap staples: abundant, non-polluting protein. With proper investment and stewardship, they could be again.

Agroforestry and fisheries are just two food solutions that we should invest much more in. So far, though, both public and private investment in them lags behind conventional grain-and-livestock agriculture. Landowner politics help explain why. 

In landowner-dominated economies, serious public investment in fisheries is often out of the question. One of the greatest fishery-killers is farm runoff. Rehabilitating fisheries would force landowners, not just industrialists and agribusiness, to stop polluting. Restored fisheries would also give farmers competition as providers of protein. Likewise, the rehabilitation of chestnut and other food forests doesn’t get funded in wealthy landowner-dominated economies because a food system based on a few commodity crops suits incumbent landowners who own the limited lands on which these crops can be grown. Diversifying the food system would only siphon public investment dollars out of their preferred way of doing things and into potential competition.

If we are to build a functioning regional food system that moves us away from agribusiness, particularly as climate change deepens, we need to stay focused on what matters: not saving the players in our current food system but feeding the public. That can mean investing in fisheries and forests, which could require regulating or banning certain types of farming. It can mean approaching food as a public utility—the way many jurisdictions already handle water, electricity, and other services—rather than as a private business. It can mean investing in traditional farmers and farm workers and recognizing their rights to land. In short, to get to a resilient food system, we need political leadership that responds to the needs of the public.

This article appears in the Fall 2022 print magazine. Subscribe now to support our journalism.

Twitter: @SarahTaber_bww

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