1960s >> 1969 >> no-781-september-1969

Editorial: Food to rot while people starve

It’s about to happen yet again. They’re going to let food rot while millions go hungry. At the beginning of August representatives from the five major wheat exporting countries (America, Canada, Australia, France, and Argentina) met in London to discuss the so-called wheat crisis. It was just over a year since their International Grains Agreement carved up the world wheat market between them. This carve-up, which was supposed to apply for three years, is in danger of breaking down because of what is callously called a “world surplus supply situation in wheat”. By which is meant, not that there is more wheat than people need, but more wheat than can be sold profitably. This arose partly because of two bumper harvests on the run and partly because Russia, China, India, and Pakistan have cut down on their imports.

Press reports sum up the situation. America, according to The Times (July 28)

will have a larger supply of wheat available this season in spite of a forecast of a 9 per cent drop in new production this year. Over 810.6m. bushels of old crop wheat was left when the season ended on June 30; this reflects a sharp fall in sales, particularly in the export market.

Canada, too, is in trouble:

      She started the crop year with an unsold inventory of some 665m. bushels which is more than the entire crop harvested in 1968. It Is estimated that at the end of the crop year today she will have more than one thousand million bushels of unsold wheat on her hands (The Times, August 1).

But it is from Australia that the most amazing proof of the absurdity of capitalist production for profit comes:

The Government estimates that more than 150m. bushels of wheat will have to be left on the farms when the present crop is harvested. It has been told by wheat farmers that unless it provides thousands of pounds in extra subsidies to pay for special storage the grain will either rot or be ravaged by vermin (The Times, July 17).

One Minister has already blamed the farmers for growing far too much! The wheat will probably rot because the warehouses are already filled with last year’s unsold stocks. Besides, the law says the surplus above the farmers’ quota cannot be sold.

Trade war

The International Grains Agreement laid down minimum prices, but with things as they are these have been under pressure. America, accusing France and Australia of getting round the agreement, announced that it was openly reducing some of its prices below the agreed level. Canada followed suit and France (through the Common Market) has retaliated by subsidising wheat exports. The prospect of a trade war in wheat while millions starve is on the cards.

But it is not the hungry millions that worried The Times. They were more concerned about the effects such a price war might have on international monetary arrangements. Something must be done, declared an editorial in their business section on July 31; wheat production must be curtailed:

   It has to be accepted by everyone that an outright price war will not expand the volume of wheat trade. Misunderstandings between nations of each other’s policies have to be removed and limitations will need to be agreed on future production. There is evidence that the wheat producers have been misled into over-producing by the buoyant markets of a few years ago. Some of this may be due to technical progress in obtaining bigger yields from the same acreages. But the long-term factors which led to a doubling of the world’s wheat trade in the past 15 years have spent their force.

The attitude of the Financial Times was even more outrageous. After stating that “a solution of the crisis except by natural disaster seems a long way off”, their agricultural correspondent, ignoring the fact that up to half the world’s present population could do with more food, concluded:

     Until world population rises sufficiently to increase the demand for wheal, land will have to be put to other use or lie fallow, perhaps for many years (August 6).

Production will of course be curtailed. The US Department of Agriculture is already predicting a drop in world wheat production:

    It estimated total wheat production in the major exporting countries of Australia, Argentina, Canada, France and the US would be down by about 7 per cent cent from last year’s 3,500m. bushels . . . The Department noted that stocks in major exporting countries continued to increase. A rise of around 620m. bushels during the 1968-69 season to an estimated 2,000m. had caused ‘some countries’ to review their policies on wheat production, it said. (Financial Times, July 30).

Within capitalism, where production is geared to the market rather than to human needs, this is the obvious answer. Farmers will not grow wheat they know they can only sell at unprofitable prices, if at all. Production must be cut down for a while so that some of the huge stocks piling up in the warehouses can be cleared, thus making wheat-growing profitable again. Of course this will only be temporary. In a few years time, there will probably be another so-called wheat glut and the whole sordid business of irate farmers, worried Ministers, price wars, rotting food, and hungry people will be repeated. It is just part of the way capitalism normally works, a striking proof that capitalism is inherently incapable of operating in a rational way so as to serve human needs.

This is why under capitalism giving away the alleged surpluses to people who need food is no solution. This would in fact make matters worse by further disrupting the world wheat market and lengthening the time it takes to recover. Besides, it is less expensive to let the food rot than ship it to where it is needed. The logic of capitalism (which puts profit before human need) points rather to absurd measures like the American policy of paying farmers not to grow food or its Australian alternative of letting the food they have grown rot on their farms. If, in a world where half the population go to bed hungry, these measures seem inhuman, that is because capitalism is an inhuman, anti-social system.