The last few years have seen a steady stream of five- and seven- and 12-point plans for how to feed the world in the face of growing demand, dwindling land and water resources, rising energy costs, and an increasingly weird and difficult climate. Try searching “how feed world” for a sample of what’s out there.

Most read more like wish lists than roadmaps. They call for things like more funding for agricultural research, more attention to the needs of women, less waste, more efficient use of water and slower population growth.

The lists overlap, but there are notable differences. Some focus on policy and others on technology. Some trumpet market solutions, while others call for governments to step up. Some argue for a shift toward industrial agriculture, while others champion smaller, more locally adapted approaches. Not surprisingly, these differences tend to reflect the interests of the people and institutions that promote them.

The latest proposal is in an opinion piece by Cargill CEO Greg Page that ran last week in The Washington Post. In “How to ensure the world’s food supply,” Page says the keys to meeting the world’s food needs are freer trade, the elimination of mandates for biofuels and “closing the agricultural productivity gap between Africa and the rest of the world.”

Page argues that opening borders and exploiting comparative advantage will result in more food and lower prices for everyone. He says markets, not governments, should decide whether crops are needed for food or fuel. And he says Africa can become a major food exporter if markets there are made to function right. That means, among other things, fewer restrictions on foreign investment.

Cargill is the world’s biggest grain trader and produces meat, animal feed, food additives and a host of other products. It’s also a charter member of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a U.S.-led initiative anchored by 45 multinational corporations that have committed to investing billions of dollars in Africa. As part of that initiative, Cargill plans to boost corn and soy production in Mozambique. The company’s goal, says Michael A. Fernandez, vice president for corporate affairs, is to “bring them into the worldwide food chain.”

Cargill is not the only large corporation to weigh in on how the global food system should work. Meetings and conferences routinely are sponsored by multinational food and agribusiness companies and feature their executives among the speakers. DuPont, which sells nutrition supplements along with seeds and agricultural chemicals, recently proposed a new way of measuring food security that includes more nutritional data. The index, which is meant to guide public policy, has been heartily endorsed by Rajiv Shah, who leads the U.S. government’s multiagency Feed the Future program.

The World Economic Forum, which brings together “business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas,” is promoting what it calls a New Vision for Agriculture, which “highlights the vital contributions the private sector can make to implementing sustainable agriculture systems globally.” The companies that have signed on are Archer Daniels Midland, BASF, Bunge, Cargill, Coca-Cola, DuPont, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Metro AG, Monsanto, Nestlé, PepsiCo, SABMiller, Syngenta, Unilever, Yara International and Walmart. 

My purpose here is not to question the motives of these corporations or comment on the substance of their proposals. It’s simply to note that the world’s biggest food and agribusiness companies, which stand to earn billions of dollars in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia if trade and investment policies break their way, have stepped up to the podium in the public debate over how to meet the world’s future food needs. And their voices clearly carry.

If you’re interested in how the funding and advocacy landscape has changed on the feeding-the-world front, you might start with a 2011 report by the International Food Policy Research Institute called, “New Players: Stepping into the Global Food System.” For more critical views, a simple web search will turn up dozens of articles, books and studies on the influence of the food and agribusiness industries on agriculture, food, trade, environment, health and nutrition policy over the years.

+ More from the blog
+ Food for 9 Billion

Jon Miller

Jonathan Miller is executive director of Homelands Productions, a journalism cooperative specializing in public radio features and documentaries. As a freelance journalist, he has reported from Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe and the U.S. for NPR, BBC, CBC, American Public Media's Marketplace, Monitor Radio, VOA, Radio Netherlands and Radio Deutsche Welle. He also has written for The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, Parents, American Way, The Christian Science Monitor and many other publications. For 13 years, he lived and worked in the Philippines and Peru. 

Jon is currently serving as executive producer of "Food for 9 Billion," a collaborative project of Homelands Productions, the Center for Investigative Reporting, American Public Media's Marketplace, PRI's The World, and PBS NewsHour. He was executive producer of Homelands' award-winning "WORKING" project profiling workers in the global economy (2007-09) and the "Worlds of Difference" series about the responses of traditional societies to rapid cultural change (2002-05).