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Cooking the Books 2: The world could produce more food

OF COURSE WE CAN FEED THE WORLD – JUST LOOK AT ALL THE UNUSED SPACE” was the headline of a recent “opinion” article by Ross Clark in the Times (26 June, www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article4214797.ece).

Clark, a supporter of the market (who thinks that any opponent of the free market is a Marxist), argues that food production has fallen, so causing the present shortages, because in previous decades it had been overproduced. It is of course obscene to talk of too much food being produced when there are millions in the world who are starving, but he means too much in relation to paying demand. Even so, his explanation exposes the irrational way in which the capitalist system works.

According to him:

“The reason for the fall in cereal production over 15 years has not been soil degradation or climate change: while crops yields are not increasing as fast as they were doing in the 1960s, they have still risen by 1-2 per cent per annum over the past 15 years. Rather, the decrease in production has been a straightforward response to overproduction. Remember the grain mountains of the 1980s? They resulted in a collapse in prices that in turn persuaded grain producers to contract their operation. Now that prices are rising again the opposite has happened: the FAO estimates that this year's wheat harvest will rise by 13 per cent as a result of extra planting, putting downward pressure on prices next year.”

He points out that today:

“the background to rising food prices is the shrinkage of global agriculture over the past decade and a half. Globally, less food is being produced on even less land than was the case in the early 1990s. Take the US, which according to the FAO was producing 1,210kg of cereals per person per year between 1990 and 1992 and 1,104 kg between 2001 and 2003. Or Canada, at one time the ‘world's bread basket’, where cereal production fell from 1,905 kg per person per year in 1990-92 to 1,384 kg in 2001-03.”

Given the current strong paying demand for food, the 1990s levels may well be reached again but this would satisfy only paying demand. What about those who cant pay?

Though it is far from his intention, Clark provides information which shows that enough food could be produced to satisfy their food needs too. Of course it wont be, and never will be, under the capitalist market system which he supports. But it could be in a socialist world where production would no longer be limited to what can be sold.

Clark writes:

“the total landmass cultivated for arable crops in 2006, according Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), was 1.402 billion hectares - or 14 million sq km. In other words, all the world's cereals and vegetables are grown on an area equivalent to the USA and half of Canada. A further 34 million sq km - equivalent to the rest of North America, South America and two thirds of Australia - is given over to grazing, much of it extensive, unimproved grassland. The rest of the world - equivalent to the whole of Europe, Asia, Africa, Indonesia plus a third of Australia - is not used for food production in any way. Some of this land, of course, is desert, mountain or rainforest, which either cannot be used for agriculture at all or would require irrigation, engineering or clearance. But a vast amount of it could quite easily be converted into agriculture, but has until now not been needed.”

What does he mean has not been needed? Of course its been needed! What Clark means again is that it has not been needed to meet paying demand. Socialists say that it is needed to end world hunger but will only be able to be used for this when once the resources of the Earth have become the common heritage of all humanity. Thats the only basis on which these currently unused resources can be used to meet the food needs of everyone, not just of those who can afford to pay.