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Is There Really a Problem with Food Shortages in the US?

Food Shortage

Story at-a-glance -

  • Being food “secure” means you have access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle
  • USDA data revealed that 86 percent of US households were food secure in 2014, which means 14 percent were not
  • People are going hungry not because of a food shortage, but rather because of problems with food access, distribution, waste, and inappropriate government subsidies

By Dr. Mercola

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released their latest data on food security in the US. Being food “secure” means you have access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle.

The data revealed that 86 percent of US households were food secure in 2014, which means 14 percent were not.1 This number is essentially the same as in 2013, as was the percentage of households with very low food insecurity (5.6 percent).

According to the USDA:

Food-insecure households (those with low and very low food security) had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources…

In [the]… more severe range of food insecurity, the food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year due to limited resources.

Children were food insecure at times during the year in 9.4 percent of U.S. households with children (3.7 million households), essentially unchanged from 9.9 percent in 2013. These households were unable at times during the year to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children.”

What you’ll notice about the USDA’s findings is that people are going hungry not because of a food shortage, as is often portrayed in the media (and certainly used as a buzz word to promote genetically modified crops), but rather because of a lack of resources, or poverty, combined with a number of other factors discussed below.

A Shortage of Food Production Isn’t the Problem

Genetically modified (GM) crops are often touted as necessary to ensure global food security, even though studies show reduced crop yields with their use. Not to mention, GM crops are monocrops, which means they are more vulnerable to disease and require increased usage of pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides.

A team of 900 scientists funded by the World Bank and United Nations determined that the use of GM crops is simply NOT a meaningful solution to the complex situation of world hunger.2

Instead, the scientists suggested that "agro-ecological" methods would provide the most viable means to ensure global food security, including the use of traditional seed varieties and local farming practices already adapted to the local ecology.  

You see, our current food system is highly concentrated — first, in terms of being a monoculture with very few varieties available, and second, in terms of ownership of these few precious crops. And far from being the answer to the world's food needs, this concentration actually ensures food insecurity.

Meanwhile, problems with hunger are typically not related to a shortage in food production, but rather problems with the way that food is used and distributed – and the types of food being grown in the first place. The Institute of Hazard, Risk, and Resilience Blog summed it up nicely:3

“… [T]here is more than enough food to go around, even as the global population gets bigger and more people demand a varied diet as many people living in more developed countries do… Because of the technological means in place for planting and harvesting food there are often surpluses, especially in richer countries, but food is often wasted.

Instead of becoming more conservative and conscious of the food resources available, many nations have become overly consumerist and wasteful. 1.2 to 2 billion tons of all food produced ends up as waste, which is 30 percent to 50 percent of total food production in the world, and it is not only a waste of food but a waste of energy, water, and other resources that go into producing it.

In the meantime, while there is a global food surplus taking place there is still starvation in developing countries throughout the world. Many people are not getting enough to eat and the main contributor is a large-scale social problem that no one can seem to tackle fully: poverty.

Poverty is not merely a social problem it is a major health hazard and humanitarian disaster.

And it is largely because of inequality that poverty is allowed to sit at the table unwelcome, removing the possibility of providing the food resources needed by everyone, but tolerated by present, past, and likely future generations nevertheless.

This is one of many reasons why food insecurity is a global challenge. Why during a time when food production is at its highest hundreds of millions of people are still starving?”

In the US, Rates of Obesity Soar

More than 2.1 billion people, or close to 30 percent of the global population, are overweight or obese, and obesity is responsible for about five percent of all deaths each year, worldwide.4

Today, about 75 percent of US men and 67 percent of US women are either overweight or obese, and the trend is getting worse,not better. In fact, in the US nearly one in five deaths is now associated with obesity. It’s hard to point fingers at a food shortage when we’re dealing with rising rates of obesity-related deaths.

And here again, while it’s claimed GM crops are "necessary" to feed a growing population, their actual results of FATTENING the world are rarely shown.

GM crops make no progress with starvation due to distribution issues, and producers instead look for profitable ways to get more people eating the GM diet staples of corn syrup, trans fats from soybean oil, and GM sugar, which together fuel the rising obesity rates around the globe while doing little to solve problems where hunger exists.

The safety of the entire GM “food” production is a boldfaced lie when you look at these primary food crops sickening Americans, contributing to rates of obesity and doing nothing to “feed the world:”

  • High-fructose corn syrup — one of the primary sources of calories in the American diet — is made from GM corn (Bt corn), registered with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for producing its own internal pesticide
  • Hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fats) known to cause heart and cardiovascular disease is made from GM soy that is resistant to pesticide. This allows it to soak up much more of it than non-GM soy
  • Sugar beets are also genetically engineered, ensuring that even foods sweetened with "regular sugar" fall into a more toxic category, courtesy of elevated pesticide contamination

Corn syrup, trans fats, and sugar – along with heavily processed refined grains – these ingredients are now foundational in the US diet, and there is virtually no doubt that they are primary contributors to Americans' failing health and rising rates of obesity. These crops are subsidized by the US government, adding to the problem.

US Government Subsidies Are Driving Up Rates of Chronic Disease

Ever since 1933, every five to seven years the US Congress passes a set of legislative acts commonly referred to as "the Farm Bill," which includes agricultural subsidies to growers of certain types of food.

These subsidies are in large part responsible for promoting and worsening the US obesity epidemic — a fact highlighted in a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.5 According to the authors, the root of the problem is that:

"Government-issued payments have skewed agricultural markets toward the overproduction of commodities that are the basic ingredients of processed, energy-dense foods."

This includes corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice, which are the top four most heavily subsidized foods. By subsidizing these, particularly corn and soy, the US government is actively supporting a diet that consists of these processed grains, namely high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), soybean oil, and grain-fed cattle – all of which are now well-known contributors to obesity and chronic disease.

The Farm Bill essentially creates a negative feedback loop that perpetuates the highly profitable but health-harming processed food diet that the United States has become infamous for.

The US government is actively promoting obesity and chronic disease through these subsidies, while simultaneously creating flawed and ineffective anti-obesity campaigns and programs to combat the very problems rooted in its agricultural policies.

US Planting a Mega-Surplus of Corn for ‘Green’ Fuel Ethanol

The US boasted nearly 92 million acres of corn crops in 2014 – the fifth largest corn acreage in the US since 1944 (and 93 percent of it is genetically modified).6 For comparison, total acreage of lettuce planted in 2012 was 267,100 acres,7 broccoli was harvested from just 121,700 acres,8 and bell peppers were grown on about 55,500 acres.9

What could the US possibly do with that much corn? The US green energy policy requires oil companies to blend corn ethanol into their gasoline, which has driven up corn prices (until this year). Corn crops are already subsidized by the US government, so between subsidies and rising ethanol-driven prices, corn has become quite a cash crop for farmers.

But this “green energy” program is backfiring, because there’s nothing “green” about planting a mega-surplus of corn, especially when natural prairies are now being sacrificed to do it. Meanwhile, how can there be talks of a food shortage when the US is using up some of its best soil to grow corn for fuel?

Not to mention that, by driving up prices, it may actually contribute to hunger. More than 800 million people around the world don’t have access to enough to eat, and when corn prices rise, it makes it difficult for even more people to feed their families. Nearly half of the corn grown in the US goes toward fuel, while people are starving around the world…

And Then There’s the Food Waste…

Another clear indicator that food production shortages are not the root cause of people going hungry is the amount of food wasted in the US. A report from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) revealed that 40 percent of food in the US goes uneaten, which amounts to a waste of more than 20 pounds of food per person, every month. This amounts to upwards of $2,275 in annual losses for the average US household of four.10 This isn’t simply a matter of the food itself, as with this waste comes:

  • $165 billion that is essentially “thrown out”
  • 25 percent of freshwater usage, wasted
  • Huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land use, also wasted
  • Rotting food in landfills, which accounts for nearly 25 percent of US methane emissions

The NRDC report also estimates:11

“ … [F]ood saved by reducing losses by just 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.”

In all, it’s estimated US families throw out about 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy. In the UK, about two-thirds of household food waste is due to food spoiling before it is used. And shockingly, more fruits and vegetables are wasted in the US food system than are actually consumed (52% are wasted versus 48% consumed)!12

Local Production and Distribution of Healthy Food Is Needed

Many Americans on the most limited food budgets, such as those who receive food assistance dollars, live in "food deserts" – areas without grocery stores, and perhaps only a convenience store or a fast-food restaurant where they can purchase their food. Meanwhile, instead of ensuring that all Americans have access to healthy foods, the US government is actively supporting a diet that consists of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), soybean oil, corn oil, and grain-fed cattle, a direct result of their flawed farm subsidy system.

The junk foods are made even cheaper through the use of unhealthy filler ingredients and preservatives that prevent spoiling, with the end result being that the very worst foods for your health are often significantly cheaper to buy and may be the only options available for some. The time is ripe for change, and redesigning the system could help move us toward economic and nutritional, recovery – and a food system that provides access to nutritious foods for all.

If we're going to subsidize farmers, let's subsidize in a way that helps restore the health of American citizens and our land — programs that might just pay for themselves by the reduction in healthcare costs they bring about. Mark Bittman of the New York Times argued that subsidy money could easily be redirected toward helping smaller farmers to compete in the marketplace in a number of ways.13 For example, funds could be redirected toward:

  • Funding research and innovation in sustainable agriculture
  • Providing incentives to attract new farmers
  • Saving farmland from development
  • Assisting farmers who grow currently unsubsidized fruits and vegetables, while providing incentives for monoculture commodity farmers (corn, soy, wheat, and rice) to convert some of their operations to more desirable foods
  • Leveling the playing field so that medium-sized farms can more favorably compete with agribusiness as suppliers for local supermarkets

Programs such as the national nonprofit organization FoodCorps, which came up with the ingenious idea of turning acres of corn into school gardens, also show how local efforts can provide healthy foods to surrounding communities:

“FoodCorps recruits leaders for a year of full-time public service in high-obesity, limited-resource public schools. Service members deliver food and nutrition education that teaches kids what healthy food is, build and tend school gardens that engage children and parents in growing fresh food in the schoolyard, and team up with farmers and chefs to get healthy, high-quality ingredients into school lunch.”

Since mid-August 2012, FoodCorps has started 411 garden projects in 10 states with the help of close to 3,300 community volunteers, and have harvested nearly 29,600 pounds of fresh produce for local schools.14 On a national level, intense lobbying by the junk-food industry and corn and soy associations is keeping junk-food and its related subsidies as the status quo. But you can take action on an individual level.

Every state has a sustainable agriculture organization or biological farming organization that is the nucleus of the farmers in that state. You can also find an ever increasing number of "eat local," and "buy local" directories, in which local farms will be listed. The following organizations can also help you locate farm-fresh foods in your local area, which allow you to bypass the broken food-production system that’s currently in place:

  1. Local Harvest – This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
  2. Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
  3. Farmers' Markets – A national listing of farmers' markets.
  4. Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals – The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
  5. FoodRoutes – The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.
  6. Weston A. Price Foundation has local chapters around the US where you can find organic, grass-fed milk and other organic foods