Are we heading for mass starvation?

The very existence of hunger, and even more so, pockets of outright starvation, has sometimes encouraged the idea that we are witnessing the unfolding of some vast Malthusian tragedy. Inexorably, it is suggested, this will come to engulf a sizeable chunk of humanity. The irreconcilable tensions between the world’s haves and have-nots will plunge society into an unending state of barbarism.

Of course, if this truly was the case there would unquestionably be strong grounds for thinking a post-capitalist alternative to capitalism would be closed off completely. Those Malthusian-inspired ‘deep Greens’ who habitually present us with this bleak scenario, all too often coupled with such startling pronouncements along the lines of Agent Smith’s memorable comment in The Matrix, that ‘Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet’, would do well to consider the implications of what they are saying. If there is no hope for the future then we are lumbered with the very system that has brought us to this sorry impasse. Unfettered brutal competition would be the only game in town. It is but a small step from uttering such callously misanthropic sentiments to the calculated culling of one’s fellow citizens. We might just as well set about building our bunkers, fortifying our gated communities and fatalistically await the coming apocalypse like a scene out of The Walking Dead.

Way off the mark
In the 1960s and 70s a spate of books, uniformly alarmist in tone, appeared on the scene. In 1967 William and Paul Paddock spoke of this supposed looming global catastrophe and earnestly recommended applying the medical principle of the ‘triage’ (practised in the First World War to decide which wounded soldiers should be treated and which left to die) by giving food aid only to those countries that could be saved, while allowing the rest to perish. (William Paddock & Paul Paddock, Famine 1975! America’s decision: who will survive?, 1967). Paul Ehrlich reinforced this message of impending doom in his best seller, The Population Bomb (1968), declaring that ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death’. And the 1972 Club of Rome Report, The Limits to Growth, gloomily predicted in the same vein that the world was rapidly running out of key resources in the face of runaway population growth.

In fact, all these dire predictions of impending disaster proved to be way off the mark. As the free-market cornucopian, Julian Simon, pointed out in The Ultimate Resource (1981), the short term price food rises of the early 70s caused by such factors as drought, the decision of the Russians to import animal feed to boost meat consumption, and concerted attempts to reduce the huge food stockpiles of previous decades, did not really tell us much, if anything, about the long-term trends in the price (and, hence, availability) of food. Indeed, the poor harvests of the early 1970s subsequently gave way to gluts with grain prices plummeting to the consternation of US farmers in particular.

Much the same is true of more recent events. In the few years up to 2008, food prices climbed steadily but then fell back quite dramatically albeit not quite to their earlier levels. Later, from June 2010 onwards, the price of some foodstuffs, like wheat, once again rose – in this case, by nearly 50 percent in two months – following Russia’s decision to freeze grain exports after another serious drought (‘Global wheat crisis recalls Moscow’s “great grain robbery”‘, Observer, 8 August 2010).

Erratic, often speculatively driven, short-term fluctuations of this nature in the price of food are to be expected. Nevertheless, contends Simon, the historical trend is towards a gradual reduction in food costs as agriculture becomes more productive and efficient. This bodes well for tackling the problem of global poverty.

The demand for food is, after all, relatively inelastic – that is to say, it is not going to vary much with changes in food prices. Since food represents a significant component of the cost of living of the global poor (who typically spend at least half their income on food) the benefits of such long-term price reductions would be far reaching. It would mean they would then have more to spend on things like education and healthcare. A virtuous circle of self-improvement would ensue. A better-educated and healthier population will also be a more productive one and rising productivity will, in turn, generate yet more benefits. However, the converse to this argument is also true. The inelasticity of food as a human priority means that any price increases will require people to cut back on precisely these other things that might benefit them in the long run.

As regards the Malthusian obsession with population growth, contended Simon, far from this growth constituting a threat to living standards, the very opposite is true. It actually helps to raise these standards by increasing the productivity of farming itself – for example, by making it more economically feasible to develop good road networks that then makes it easier and cheaper to transport both agricultural inputs and outputs. Some of the wealthiest parts of the world, after all, also happen to be some of the most densely populated. Just as there are economies of scale in production so are there economies of scale in population size.

Free-market optimism
Simon’s Panglossian-like technological optimism and his unabashed faith in the market economy to deliver the goods in due course, is justified in some respects but not in others. For a start, food prices, on the whole, don’t seem to be quite following the broad trend he predicted. They tend to be volatile – more so than for other goods – and while many food items have become more affordable over long stretches of time (if you compare median weekly earnings to the average price of selected food items), quite recently food prices seem to have been trending upwards for various reasons and more to the point, setting new records. It is frankly difficult to square this with the idea of a long-term downward trend. It makes the latter seem more like an article of faith than a deduction based on rigorous scientific enquiry.

As Otaviano Canuto noted:

‘The world food price index collected for the last 60 years by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) hit its highest record in March, declining gently in April. Pandemic, war and death in Ukraine, and droughts in the last 2 years… Such a combination looks apocalyptical. Now it is adding global hunger risks, because of the food price crisis’ (Otaviano Canuto, The Global Food Price Shock, Policy Center for the New South, May 18, 2022).

Other factors, as the article goes on to point out, such as supply-chain disruptions triggering food stockpiling and bans on exports, as well as mobility restrictions on migrant farm labour negatively impacting on harvests in many parts of the world, have also played a role in pushing up prices to these record levels. What lies behind these various factors is the division of modern capitalism into competing nation-states and giant corporations.

A mere handful of the latter control the great bulk of the global grain trade and these corporations, particularly following the onset of the Ukrainian war (Ukraine being a major grain exporter), have significantly boosted their profit margins by raising prices (albeit at the expense of profit margins elsewhere in the economy). A similar picture of corporate dominance pertains in the case of agribusiness suppliers of farm inputs like seeds and fertilisers with just three multinationals – Bayer-Monsanto, Dupont-Dow and Chem-China Syngenta – controlling 60 percent of the trade. And among retailers, a mere 10 grocery businesses account for half of all food sales in the EU (Fiona Harvey, ‘Food price rises around the world are result of ‘broken’ system, say experts’, Guardian, 24 August 2022).

This oligopolistic situation is far removed from the rosy vision of small-scale ‘corner shop’ capitalism promoted by free-market devotees, like Simon. Indeed, were such a vision ever to magically materialise, one can safely assume it would ineluctably lead us back, sooner or later, to the self-same situation we now find ourselves in. Competition itself, after all, tends to generate monopoly or oligopoly. The strong tend to drive out the weak. In any event, the outcome we now have is a food system that, in the view of many commentators, is irredeemably broken. It works not only against the interest of consumers who have to pay for these higher food prices but also numerous small farmers, struggling to survive in the face of mounting costs.

Enough for 10 billion…
And yet, despite everything, this same food system has also demonstrably created the potential for food abundance – even if it fails to deliver on that promise. According to one often-cited, if somewhat dated, source the world, as it happens, already grows enough food to support 10 billion people – compared to an existing global population of 8 billion (Holt-Giménez, Eric & Shattuck, Annie & Altieri, Miguel & Herren, Hans & Gliessman, Steve July 2012, ‘We Already Grow Enough Food for 10 Billion People … and Still Can’t End Hunger’, Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, 36 (6) p595-8).

Furthermore, contrary to the dire Malthusian predictions of exponentially growing populations, population growth peaked sometime in the 1960s and has been slowing ever since then. In 1950, the average birth rate was about 5 children per woman; by 2021 this had fallen to 2.3, according to the United Nations Population Division, with the world becoming increasingly urbanised (World Population Prospects: Summary of Results, UN Report 2022). Partly this is because, living in a town, you don’t need more children to look after your goat herd or tend your crops. Also, living in a town means you have better access to medicines that have significantly reduced rates of infant mortality. If people had larger families in the past it was precisely because so many of their children died young.

These declining birth rates have meant an increasing number of countries are now experiencing below-replacement level – or negative – growth and, remarkably, there is more and more concern being expressed about the prospect of depopulation and a steadily ageing population, rather than overpopulation. Some countries, worried about their waning influence on the international stage, have begun to institute pro-natalist policies with a view to reversing their relative population decline. For them the link between power and population is compellingly self-evident: big is obviously better in a competitive global economy.

…so why hunger?
However, despite the aforementioned productive potential to adequately feed the world, hunger, seemingly bafflingly, continues to scar the lives of hundreds of millions of people:

‘The UN estimates that more than 820 million people are undernourished, a jump of 60 million in five years. Nearly a quarter of all children under five are stunted and 1.9 billion adults are overweight, according to the World Health Organisation’ (John Vidal, Guardian, 4 March 2021,)

How is this possible? If agricultural output is already more than sufficient to meet the need of the world’s people why do so many go hungry? It’s because the bulk of food produced today is produced to be sold on a market and so access to it is dependent on purchasing power. If you lack the means to buy food then you are denied it in a market economy. This essentially explains why people go hungry today. They are unable to express enough ‘market demand’ to meet their needs. It’s as simple as that.

If you don’t earn much money you face a serious problem. If the price of food goes up your problem gets even worse. That is why rising food prices translate into more and more people becoming hungry. They might choose to allocate a rising portion of their small budgets to food purchases and a shrinking portion on other things, but there will come a point when this will simply no longer be feasible. Something will have to give. When that happens this often results in an explosion of food riots and violence on the streets that can, and has, toppled governments.


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