1980s >> 1987 >> no-991-march-1987

Conquering mountains

Amid great publicity and jubilation the EEC has slashed more than £1 billion off its farm budget. It has done this by cutting future Common Market milk production by 9.5 per cent and reducing the minimum price guaranteed to beef producers by 13 per cent. “EEC conquers food mountain” was how the Daily Telegraph put it (17 December) and the junior Farm Minister in parliament. John Selwyn Gummer, described the cuts as “a historic step forward”.

The mountain at present consists of 1½ million tons of butter, one million tons of skimmed milk powder, 600.000 tons of beef, and 18 million tons of cereals. The British Agriculture Minister responsible for engineering the deal, Michael Jopling, was described as tired but triumphant after the talks. Calling the agreement an epic victory, he stated that the milk cuts alone would constitute “considerably more than the entire production of New Zealand”. The ministers of the other countries were just as jubilant and at the end of the talks they all celebrated with champagne.

What did they have to celebrate? Not a reduction in food prices, for it was made clear that the cuts would not make food cheaper. Not an increase in their popularity with the farmers, for despite the provision of compensation for loss of earnings, many will lose money or go out of business. What then? Well, not much, other than managing to agree among themselves. Because what posed as a victory actually represents a capitulation — a capitulation to the market. The market decrees that money and resources shouldn’t go into producing goods and services there isn’t a buyer for. And when governments — in this case the EEC governments through the Common Agricultural Policy — try to control the market or at least direct it along their own channels, the market will, sooner or later, channel governments back along its own no buyer no production path. This is what’s happened here.

But what’s wrong with market forces reasserting themselves? What’s wrong with not producing food for which there obviously isn’t a buyer? Well, there is another way of looking at it and it starts to show up if we look at two words that are often used to describe the EEC food stocks — “excess” and “surplus”. Are the stocks really in excess of people’s needs? Are they surplus to requirements? It’s true that if they were put on the market at the same price as already existing food, they wouldn’t be bought. But is this because people don’t need them? Or isn’t it rather because people haven’t got the money to buy them? Clearly many of the 30 million people on or below the official poverty line in the EEC don’t get all the milk, butter and beef they need — and some get very little indeed. The determining factor isn’t their need but the amount of cash they’ve got in their pockets. Seen in these terms, the EEC ministers’ “food coup” is an application of the fundamental economic law of the society we live in — the law that goods and services are produced to be sold to people who have money to buy them, not to satisfy the requirements of people who need them.

A solution to this might seem to be to distribute the “surpluses” free or at lower prices to those who can’t afford them. But within the market system this isn’t a solution, definitely not a long-term solution, as it would inevitably force the current prices down, cut profits and cause economic chaos with producers, suppliers and retailers going out of business and making their workers unemployed too. As Gummer said in reply to a suggestion in parliament that beef and butter in the EEC stores be given free to pensioners: “Those who usually bought butter would not buy it if it was given away” (Guardian, 19 December 1986).

For just such a reason, this “solution” is not applied in the Third World, where many people do not simply go short of certain things they need through lack of money in their pockets but actually die of starvation and disease for that reason. Food supplied to them “free” from the economically advanced countries would upset the home markets. So it happens only on a very small scale and usually during what are called emergencies. Actually there’s no country in the world that couldn’t satisfy the food needs of its people if production were not geared to the market and sale at a profit. As it is, much of what is produced in Third World countries (and indeed in others too) goes abroad in search of those who can buy it rather than stay at home for those who need it.

What emerges from this picture of unsatisfied needs among vast “surplus” is that humans have got the knowledge, the techniques and the skills to produce food (and everything else) on an absolutely massive scale but we’re not using them in the interests of humanity as a whole. Instead we’re channelling them through a system of production and distribution that isn’t geared to meeting those interests. It’s geared solely to finding buyers on the market with a view to making profit and this means starvation, misery and destitution for many, the bare necessities for others and for most of us in countries like Britain, a life in which, whether we’re in or out of work, we just about scrape by.

It seems a daft way to live when all we need to do is get together and organise the resources the earth offers, the technology we’ve developed and the skills and energies we possess, to produce everything directly for use without the obstacle of the market and the buying and selling system. Not even the rationing regime we choose to live under at present can hide the potential that exists for abundance. We need only look at the EEC food mountains and the surpluses in so many other parts of the world. The step we need to take now is to establish common ownership and control over those resources and technology and free access to the abundance they will be able to produce when we put our energies to work on them voluntarily and co-operatively. That is the real mountain we have to conquer.

Howard Moss