WASHINGTON, Oct. 5, 2016 - Ahead of World Food Day, an environmental group that has long challenged U.S. food policy claims American farmers aren’t as crucial to feeding the world’s poor as often portrayed in the industry’s advertising and public relations.

In a new report, the Environmental Working Group examined where U.S. food commodities are shipped and found that the vast majority of shipments go to more highly developed countries.

In 2015, 86 percent of U.S. farm exports went to the European Union and 19 individual countries, including Canada, China, Mexico and Japan. The United Nations rates five of the top seven export destinations, including the EU, as having “very high” development. The two other top importers of U.S. food, China and Mexico, rate as “high” on the UN’s development scale.

By comparison, the 19 countries rated by the UN as having the greatest hunger problems accounted for just 0.5 percent of U.S. agricultural exports in 2015, according to the report. Among the hungriest countries, the largest imports of U.S. food were Haiti, Yemen and Ethiopia.

“The United States has a critically important role to play in combatting global hunger and poverty, but there is no moral imperative attached to sending more and more meat, animal feed and other agricultural products to parts of the world that have the means to afford those products,” the report says.

The report makes passing reference to the fact that U.S. farm production holds down the cost of food globally, noting that the 2012 drought in the U.S. raised global food prices by 6 percent. “Such price increases hit the hungriest nations the hardest. U.S. production does help hungry populations by keeping food prices relatively low, but the United States cannot rely solely on its impact on prices to help feed the hungry,” the report says.

Pat Westhoff, who directs the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) at the University of Missouri, says the report downplays the impact of U.S. production on making food affordable around the world. “For families that spend half their income on food purchases, even a modest change in food prices has huge implications for hunger and health,” he said.

On the other hand, he said that the impact of U.S. production and global food prices on individual poor countries can be quite modest, depending in part on government policies and local diets.

In Mozambique, which Westhoff recently visited, consumers aren’t benefitting from the sharp drop in prices for U.S. corn even though corn is a staple food. The reason: In east and southern Africa, people have historically preferred white corn, not yellow. Yellow corn, which is by far the predominant U.S. crop, is considered a poor substitute in making maize meal.

Even while prices for U.S. yellow corn are the lowest they’ve been in a decade, white corn prices in South Africa and Mozambique “are incredibly high because of limited local supplies,” Westhoff said. Wheat isn’t really an option in the region, both because of trade policies that increase the cost and the fact that poor consumers aren’t used to eating it.


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