World Food Resources . . . the Myth of Shortage

Six years ago the Socialist Standard told its readers : “the world has, and has had for some time now, the natural, industrial and human resources to provide for the needs of all its people” (July 1970).


Yet this December, as usual, the bleeding-hearts business, big charities like War on Want, Oxfam, Help the Aged etc. will be appealing to you for cash to help feed the starving millions. Their ad-men will portray the usual appalling and pitiable near-skeletons of Asia and Africa, and advise you that a mere 25p will adequately feed a family for a week. Apart from advertising the evident failure of the soup- kitchen dole to solve the hunger problem, they are reminding us that capitalism can only try to alleviate, never eliminate hunger.


Many people still believe that hunger is caused today by over-population and that if there were fewer people in the world, then, and only then, could they be adequately fed. This is not so. In the first place, the resources and technology exist now to feed the world’s population many times over. Second, even if the population did decrease substantially, there would still be a hunger problem, since hunger like homelessness is essentially an economic problem, a poverty problem.


American food and agriculture experts, writing in the September issue of The Scientific American, stress again and again that there is no technical reason why we should not enormously increase food production. The factors which prevent or retard this increase are social, political and economic.


“There are two components to the solution of the food problem: increased production of food primarily in the developing countries, and widespread increases in family incomes, particularly among the poor . . . People can buy food if they have money, but hungry people do not have money—in the developing countries or in the U.S. or wherever else people are hungry.” (Sterling WortmanScientific American p.35)


Writing about American agriculture, which by means of high capital inputs has enormously increased the potential of its labour force, Earl O. Heady calculates: “If international organizations or a single world organization could establish institutions that would make added output from American agriculture available to the world’s hungry, and if the effort could he made economic for American farmers, the US could increase its agricultural output and exports by a substantial amount . . . The US has a considerable reserve of land that could be planted to crops if it were profitable to do so. The latest available census data show that in 1969 the nation had 422 million acres of cropland, of which only 333 million acres were devoted to crops: the remainder was given over to pasture or lay fallow. . . .  If just the unused cropland were now converted to crops, if water were utilized efficiently and if all proved new technologies were adopted, by 1985 the nation could fully meet all domestic demand and still increase its exports of grain by 183 per cent over the record average level between 1972 and 1974. Specifically, corn exports could be increased by 228 per cent, wheat exports by 57 per cent and soybean exports by 363 per cent”, (pp. 126-7, our italics).


The reason agricultural output is not increased substantially is basically an economic one. The hungry have no money to buy food at existing prices, so they do not constitute a market. Under capitalism food is a commodity and commodities are only produced when there is an effective economic demand. People feeling hungry is not the same thing as “economic demand for food”.


Finally, W. David Hopper concludes his assessment of agriculture in developing countries by asserting that: “the world’s food problem does not arise from any physical limitation on potential output or any danger of unduly stressing the ‘environment’. The limitations on abundance are to be found in the social and political structures of nations and in the economic relations among them. The unexploited global resource is there, between Cancer and Capricorn. The successful husbandry of that resource depends on the will and the actions of men” (p. 205).


In the last thirty years there have been two major developments in arable agriculture. First, the application of fertilizers and the development of pesticides, which have boosted yields, especially in conjunction with improved irrigation. Then, the “green revolution”, based on irrigation, fertilizers and the use of new, improved varieties of rice and wheat developed by plant-breeding establishments. This has resulted in phenomenal increases in yield.


However water-control requires huge capital investment maintained over a long period. Also fertilizers and pesticides are very expensive luxuries for Third World farmers. The small farmer—and in India 25 per cent of farmers have less than 5 acres of land, and even the landlords typically own only 10 acres, worked by three or four tenants and their families—finds he cannot afford the new seed varieties and continues to use the old varieties. Thus in Third World countries the poverty of the rural population retards the development of modern agricultural techniques, and at the same time their failure to use these techniques perpetuates their poverty.

Roger Revelle estimates the capital cost for developing modern techniques in India at around 1,000 dollars per hectare. From this he projects an estimate for Asia, Latin America and Africa over a 25-year period at more than 30 billion dollars per annum. Feeding the starving millions would require an enormous capital investment totalling more than 700 billion dollars. Too much, say the governments of the world.


But capitalism has neglected the enormous potential of Third World countries. Land, water and sunlight are there in abundance. But India and other Third World countries concentrated on the development of heavy industry. They built up the cities at the expense of the countryside. Capital was directed to steel, mining, engineering and consumer industries. And when domestic agriculture, starved of capital investment, failed to deliver the goods, the US were all too quick to give food aid.


This “aid” was probably more helpful to the donor country than to the recipients in the long term. The former were delighted to find an “economic demand” for grain which might otherwise have had to be disposed of less profitably (in silos, at the bottom of the sea or simply ploughed under). But the provision of these vast quantities of grain helped to depress the price of locally produced food. So the Third World farmers were unable to expect a high price in famine years to compensate for lower prices in other years. Thus dependence on food aid has acted to retard the development in India and other Third World countries of an indigenous agriculture based on a high and continued capital investment in water-control, fertilizer and improved seed varieties. The policy of dependence on North America’s bread-basket is in the interests of the industrial sector in the developing countries: keeping food cheap is one way of preventing wages from rising.


Thus the food problem in Third World countries derives from he conflict of interests between the industrial capitalists and the rural proprietors. The consequence is summed up by Hopper: “Keeping food cheap to appease urban consumers often leads to policies that destroy the economic incentive for modernizing farms . . . The food generosity of the industrial countries, whether in their own self-interest (disposing of food surpluses) or under the mantle of alleged distributive justice, has probably done more to sap the vitality of agricultural development in the developing world than any other single factor. Food aid not only has dulled the political will to develop agriculture but also, by augmenting domestic production with grain grown abroad, has kept local prices at levels that destroy incentives for indigenous farmers” (p. 203).


We can sum up the conclusions reached from studying the facts and figures presented in The Scientific American, briefly, as supporting the Socialist case that it is the capitalist economic system that prevents farmers from growing enough food for every man, woman and child on this planet. The land is there, much of it unused, capable of feeding more than twelve times the world’s present population. That is the estimate given by Robert S. Loomis on page 105.


Capitalism has developed all the productive techniques necessary for production for abundance. But the capitalist economic system can only produce in response to economic demand and the prospect of a profit is a sine qua non, in farming as in every other sphere of capitalist production. The farmers must have “incentives” — and Oxfam pictures of starving children do not amount to an incentive.


The begging bowl is not just a symbol of the charities: it is a symbol of the misery and want in many forms endured by the poor. It is the hallmark of the most productive economic system man has ever developed. The stark contrast between the starving millions on the one hand and the enormous potential for food production on the other hand emphasizes the need to end commodity production. We have developed social production, with global cooperation we can make use of the techniques for increasing food output. Socialism can make this possible: only Socialism can release our productive potential and make the begging bowl a museum curiosity.


Charmian Skelton