How socialism could increase food production

In two previous articles we set out facts showing that more people suffer and die from hunger than ever before.

Since the FAO was set up in 1945 to help solve the problem, the numbers add up to hundreds of millions. But the miseries of this problem could be so easily prevented. Millions die from hunger not because of natural catastrophe or “too many people”. The catastrophe is the world capitalist system that puts profits before people. The deaths are preventable because potentially there are abundant resources of land, labour, machinery and farming technique. The problem is that these resources are not free to be used directly for needs. They are shackled to the anti-social ends of the market system that puts profits before people.

The proposal that the world community in socialism could immediately stop deaths from hunger and rapidly increase the supply of food is based on the freedom that all people would enjoy to co-operate with each other to produce food directly for needs without the constraints of the market system. However, we also have an example of a rapid increase in food production during World War II when the normal operation of the market system was suspended. For instance, throughout the UK, under the direction of the Ministry of Agriculture, farming was planned, organised and largely paid for from a war budget. It was still limited by the economics of the capitalist system. It could not have been sustained because it was part of an accumulation of debt that eventually had to be re-paid from the profits of post-war trade.

It became a huge debt. “We end the war a net debtor for nearly £3,000,000,000 to the world overseas, where we began it as a net creditor for a like or even larger amount” (British War Production 1939 – 1945, compiled by The Times.) The money was mostly spent on war production and the armed forces but it also included the costs of farming. Writing about the coal industry future Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who was then Director of Economics and Statistics at the Ministry of Fuel said that “by the end of 1944 economic laws had ceased to apply to the industry”. What was true of coal mining was also true of farming. It meant that instead of production being determined by market capacity for sales at a profit, subsidised production was paid for from government funds. No limit was set on production, and prices were guaranteed by the government for 18 months ahead. Though this example may seem perverse so far as socialism is concerned, it does indicate what can be achieved when production and distribution is organised, even for a short period, outside the normal constraints of market laws. What was achieved was that over a period of about four years food production in Britain was increased by 70 percent.

Such an increase of 70 percent today, on a world scale and within four years, would be more than enough to provide every person with choice and free access to good quality food. The ways in which this rapid increase was organised and achieved in World War II could provide some lessons for socialism.

A policy was adopted for converting pasture for dairy and meat products to arable land for cereals and vegetables. In 1939 farmers were given a grant of £2 per acre for ploughing up grassland and between April and September of that year 350,000 acres of grass were ploughed and added to the acreage for growing bread grains. This policy was continued and soon, over 7 million acres of grassland were converted for arable use. It resulted in a more efficient extraction of calorie values. “An acre of permanent grass (for dairy and meat) feeds only one or two persons; that acre ploughed up and sown with wheat feeds 20, and planted with potatoes feeds 40.” (British War Production 1939-1945).

Whilst more tractors were made available, the fact that more people could begin work immediately using hand tools was an advantage. Workers were brought in from Ireland. Volunteer land clubs were formed together with holiday harvest camps for schoolchildren and adults. I myself was one of many young people who were “encouraged ” to spend school holidays working on the land. This was picking potatoes and pulling turnips for 3d per hour (or 1.25p) under a bewildered farm foreman known by the youngsters as “Nobby the Slavedriver”. He impressed us most with his ability to shout instructions without dislodging the roll-up fag that always drooped from the corner of his mouth. He may have been good at farming but he had never been trained to manage dozens of youths whose attention span when weeding endless rows of carrots was about ten minutes. He did his best but, for easily distracted school kids, patriotism was an abstraction too far.

The 90,000 women of the Land Army came from very different backgrounds. The daughters of doctors, solicitors, labourers and factory workers from the industrial areas joined together, driving tractors, milking cows and cleaning out pigs. By all accounts the work was hard but enjoyable. The living conditions on farms were often crude but mostly morale was high.

There were German prisoners of war who were trusted to march themselves in squads between fields and their huts. Also many Italians who at one point, and without in any way changing as people, stopped being the enemy and became allies overnight. PoWs sometimes worked with conscientious objectors whose ideas ranged across a spectrum from Jehovah Witnesses and Quakers to Socialists. With this great mix some farms became debating societies. Despite many farm workers joining the forces the total labour strength in agriculture in England and Wales increased from 607,100 in 1939 to 740,500 in 1944.

But the expansion of agriculture needed to be kept in balance and to achieve this the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries became the main organising body that co-ordinated the work of local areas. Agricultural Executive Committees were set up in each of the 61 counties of England and Wales. In turn, these county committees divided the work between district committees as part of rural district councils. Attached to these local committees were technical staffs who could advise, assist and work directly with local farms. This was the organisation that carried out a balanced and comprehensive policy for increasing food production.

The British capitalist state was driven to this only as part of the means of winning the war. The object was to provide the population with “an adequate diet which would keep them fit for the strenuous tasks which total war imposes on all”. But if this organisation could work so well as a war effort, a similar effort in socialism as part of war on hunger could quickly end the miseries of poverty and starvation that are a permanent and worsening feature of world capitalism. Over the last 25 years the numbers of starving people have doubled from 435 million to over 800 million. Against this, as the example of increased food production during World War II shows, the case that starvation is easily preventable is not just argued as theory, it can be demonstrated from experience.

The organisation that led to increased food production in Britain during World War II indicates practical ways of achieving similar results in socialism. Potentially, the organisation already exists. In place of national governments, the UN could be democratised as a World Council which could become a centre for co-ordinating a world-wide war on hunger. The FAO could also achieve its potential as a key organisation at last able to achieve real results. To devolve the work, agricultural committees could be set up in every country and these could be further de-centralised through county and district committees, (or equivalent bodies in all countries). At every level throughout this structure, the FAO could provide skilled staffs able to draw on its store of world data and technical information to advise and assist the work. This network could be extended to local farms with an ability to adapt to every local condition.

Common ownership would give all communities immediate access to land. In the short term, people in the areas of greatest need could concentrate their local efforts using the best means available. At the same time the regions most able to do so could assist with increased supplies. There can be no doubt that throughout the world, within a season, the plight of the seriously undernourished would be greatly improved.

In the longer term, communities in socialism would be able to look beyond the immediate priorities of desperate need and begin to sort out the appalling state of world agriculture that is a consequence of the exploitation and destructive methods of capitalist agribusiness. It not only exploits farm workers of all lands, it exploits anything in nature it can get its hands on.

There is of course widespread concern, not just about starving people but also about the damage and loss of natural food assets across the world. This is the continuing despoliation of land and ocean resources, the excessive and inappropriate use of weed killers and chemical fertilisers together with the cruel treatment of animals. But concern is too often weakened by a sense of powerlessness. It is also neutralised by actions that protest against capitalism whilst having no prospect of getting rid of it. It is therefore vital that the socialist movement is strengthened. The work of providing for the needs of all people begins with the work of organising for world socialism.

Pieter Lawrence

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