Advocates of American agriculture are frequently heard saying “our farmers feed the world,” or some similar platitude. In many senses they are correct in their praise: peoples around the globe utilize or consume billions of dollars worth of our feedgrains, proteins, and food products.
It was with this firmly in mind when I wrote last week, in our sister publication Feedstuffs, that:
"Given the opportunity to sell more food abroad (if Congress would pass three lingering free trade agreements) and to produce more food at home (by limiting burdensome regulations), livestock producers can enjoy a very bright future, indeed."
The column, and specifically this excerpt, drew several comments via Facebook, a few of which really got my attention. Mike from Mississippi wrote, "So? We'd rather send OUR food overseas, to foreign countries, rather than keep it here for the American people?"
When informed that the U.S. produces plenty of food, Mike responded simply, "Tell that to the population that goes to bed hungry every night."
Mike, of course, makes a good point: people go to bed hungry every night. The point he missed, even with several other Facebook commenters explaining, is that people in this country don’t go hungry because we export food to other countries.
Now, one could make an economic argument that the law of supply and demand is such that by creating overseas demand for agricultural products, we also increase the price received for those products. Greater demand for the same supply equals a greater price, in other words.
I must admit, I had no worldly clue that a column ostensibly on government regulations, and to a great extent on opportunities in the food animal industry, would engender an argument over the merits of exports in a society in which people do suffer some level of food insecurity.
The concept of food security, of course, is not a new one; more and more in recent years have members of the media written of the issues in this country and elsewhere with folks going to bed hungry every night. It is one of the great tragedies in society.
And yet, I contend, as did several commenters on Facebook, that the American farmer produces enough food to feed every American and then some. Consider this: U.S. cattlemen produce roughly 20% of the global beef supply with only 7% of the world’s cattle herd. The level of productivity we've managed in this country is astounding.
Also consider that, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF), beef exports set a new value record in July of more than $513 million, with pork exports topping $480 million. Both stayed on pace to set new annual value records in 2011 and break the $5 billion mark for the first time ever.
This feat is considerable, and to my mind, commendable. USMEF President and CEO Philip Seng was particularly excited about the export value per head slaughtered in July, which reached nearly $237 for fed steers and heifers, and almost $60 per hog. Seng noted the%age of total production being exported, which approached 29% for pork and 16% for beef.
Ponder that for a moment… Nearly a third of our pork production goes overseas, as does one-sixth of the beef we produce. In 2010, U.S. per capita beef consumption was 59.7 pounds, according to the CME Daily Livestock Report, “at the lowest level in our data set that goes back to 1955." Likewise, total U.S. per capita meat consumption, including pork, poultry and fish, was 224 pounds.
So, the average American eats roughly five pounds of meat per month, or a quarter of his total meat consumption.
In 2009, total U.S. beef production hit 25.95 billion pounds. The U.S. population is a little over 312 million. That means we produce a little over 83 pounds of beef in this country for every man woman and child counted by the U.S. Census Bureau, leaving over 23 pounds of difference between what we produce and what our own citizenry consumes.
I, for one, would prefer the U.S. consumer eat even more beef but that's the subject of another column.
Beef exports added value to U.S. cattle producers’ bottom lines last year, and for many years back. We exported 2.35 billion pounds of beef last year, just under 10% of our production, earning $4.08 billion in the process. That’s 10% of our production, and 10% of our farm-gate receipts.
The next time someone tells you we shouldn’t be worried about exports because we have hungry people to feed here at home, tell them you're doing your share and then some.