Capitalism and Hunger

The world is overpopulated, we are told, and this alleged overpopulation (often confused with density of population) is the cause of hunger. Hence, in order to eliminate the problem of hunger, the world’s population must first be reduced.

This is the reasoning behind the many attempts to force Indian villagers to limit their families to only one or two children, whether by persuasion or compulsion. The moral persuasion advocated by Malthus in the nineteenth century has given way in the twentieth century to government campaigns for mass sterilization.

But this argument is, although widely accepted, totally false. The facts do not support it. For example, a special issue on “Food and Agriculture” in Scientific American (Sept. ’76) invite the conclusion that we are capable, now, of feeding not just the present world population but an even greater world population. The cause of hunger, starvation and malnutrition, whether in the so-called “Third World” countries or in the West, is to be found in our economic system.

Why is it that the capitalist economic system does not produce enough food? In the first place, under capitalism the production of food, like that of other commodities, is deliberately restricted. If there is “too much” food, the price falls, farmers lose profits and sooner or later, governments intervene with policies aimed at restricting production so as to maintain the market price at a profitable level, if all else fails the stuff can always be destroyed — dumped at the bottom of the sea, for instance: anything will do just so long as the market price is maintained. Above all, it must not be given away to the hungry.

Which brings us to the other half of the equation. Why are people hungry when shops and warehouses are full of stored food? Here we have to state the obvious. The only reason for most people doing without the food they and their families need is quite simply that they cannot afford it. Poverty restricts the ability of most of the world’s working class to buy what food is available—the price is too high. The old “Let them eat cake” problem!

Along with this view of food as simply a commodity to be marketed, like houses or oil, with production controlled and restricted in such a way that supply should never catch up or overtake demand, we see agriculture exploiting the earth as a source of profits. Mother earth is raped by profit-seeking agro-business. The farmer’s business is not growing food for people to eat. Like every other capitalist, he is in business to accumulate more capital. Therefore he cannot afford to concern himself much about soil erosion, the destruction of humus, the loss of wild flowers or eagles. His real concern has to be the balance sheet: that his capital investment should produce as big a profit as possible.

Capitalist agriculture has found a few crops exceptionally profitable. In some areas, the West Indies for instance, monoculture has replaced the cultivation of a variety of food and other crops. In Europe a lot of arable land is now devoted to non-food crops — barley for the brewers in Britain, grapes for the wine trade on the Continent. Cotton, tobacco and sugar are all still dominant in many areas noted for their hunger. Forests are felled for the sake of a quick buck. Rivers are polluted by profit conscious industries. The seas are scoured to the point where even herrings become scarce; they are drilled for gas and oil and suffer pollution from oil tankers, all in the interests of maximising their owners’ profits.

Capitalism puts pressure on agriculture and industry alike to produce as cheaply and as fast as possible. Hence the excessive use of pesticides and mineral fertilisers, with consequent damage to the soil and destruction of the eco-balance. In our society the earth is capital — wealth which must be used to produce profits.

The working class throughout the world suffer poverty and hunger. This hunger is not a natural phenomenon. It is not caused by the alleged inability of people to grow enough food. It is caused by the fact that, on the one hand, it is often more profitable to grow non-food crops, and on the other hand, food is produced as a commodity to be sold at a profitable price and is therefore never produced in sufficient quantity to satisfy all man’s needs, any more than housing is. Profits first, people’s needs last — that’s capitalism.

Only if we end this system where production is primarily for profit, only if we end the money-based economy and the wages system based on class ownership of the earth and other means of production, only then do we stand any chance of both satisfying human needs and at the same time developing production techniques which will safeguard the natural environment. It is high time all “friends of the earth” recognized that profit-based capitalism is the real enemy both of those who are concerned about the problem of the “starving millions” and of those whose main concern is ecology and the environment. In Socialism there will be no conflict between the satisfaction of human needs and care for the environment.

Charmian Skelton