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Myths of the Food Crisis

Give Us This Day…A Report on the World Food Crisis

by the Staff of The New York Times
Arno, 336 pp., $10.00

How little we know about the world food problem is frightening. There are really no accurate figures on food production for any poor country; the margin of error in the estimate for India alone could feed or starve twelve million people. Nutritionists’ estimates of the “average” daily adult protein requirement have ranged from 20 grams a day to over 120. Perhaps most astonishing, we do not know the world’s population within 400 million people. In short, we do not know how much food there is, how much food people need, or even how many people there are.

If we wish to help the world’s poor, a question which naturally arises is: whom should we listen to for our information and advice? The sad answer seems to be that almost all our sources are inaccurate and unreliable. Because of the dearth of information and the high stakes involved (literally, control over millions of lives), this field has produced a litter of instant experts, who demonstrate an aggressive arrogance in situations requiring humility and caution. Their “facts” are often half true, sometimes entirely false; their judgments tend to be sweeping, majestic, and impossible to stand by for more than a year.

Thus Lester Brown, a popular food guru who is frequently quoted in Give Us This Day…, writes in 1971 that the Green Revolution of high-yielding seeds and increased agricultural inputs (pesticides, fertilizer, irrigation) is “likely to be a greater force for change than any technology or ideology ever introduced into the poor countries.”1 By 1973 Brown finds that the Green Revolution is an “opportunity lost,”2 too heavily dependent on high-priced items, enriching rich farmers while impoverishing poor ones. Similarly, other experts pronounce either that we have vanquished hunger or are doomed to live in an age of scarcity, depending on how the next six months of crops look.

Almost invariably, the flashiest, most arrogant, and most inaccurate of our various food informants teach and advise the public. There is a reason for this, and it has to do with the realities of big business and the nature of journalism. Like steel or computers, news is an industry, and it must subordinate the quality of its product to its promotion. A million people starving is better business for the press than a thousand people starving, but a billion people starving is best of all! Here the interests of the instant experts and the press dovetail: the expert gives an outrageous quote (last year one man predicted fifty million Indians might starve in 1975) and gets his name promoted, the press publishes a horror story and sells news. This is the Catch-22 of food reporting: if you read prognostications, they are probably not worth taking seriously for the very reasons that got them into the papers.

The misinformation network promoting the food crisis is more than intellectually unpleasant. Because the network “informs” the rich world, and the rich world so often makes crucial decisions over lives in the poor world, news about food can be an outright threat to many of the world’s poorest people. Bangladesh is a case in point. The cameramen who photograph those living corpses for your evening consumption work hard to evoke a nation of unrecognizable monsters starving by the roadside. Unless you have been there, you would find it hard to imagine that the people of Bangladesh are friendly and energetic, and perhaps 95 percent of them eat enough to get by. Or that Bangladesh has the richest cropland in the world, and that a well-guided aid program could help turn it from a famine center into one of the world’s great breadbaskets. To most people in America the situation must look hopeless and our involvement, therefore, pointless. If the situation is so bad, why shouldn’t we cut off our food and foreign aid to Bangladesh, and use it to save people who aren’t going to die anyhow? So The New York Times literally holds lives in its hands.

And how does it treat them? If Give Us This Day… is any indication, clumsily. This series of Times articles on famine, food production, and the 1974 Rome Food Conference, which have been slapped together into a book, is not even one of the more objectionable books on the food problem; nevertheless its analysis is shallow and its statements frequently inaccurate. By comparing it with one of the most sensitive and accurate publications on food in recent years, an issue of Science magazine which has just been turned into a book, we can perhaps see how serious are the fallacies behind some of the food myths we accept daily as fact.

Myths From 1972-1973

Give Us This Day… has two spectacular conclusions about the food crisis of June 1972-June 1973. First, a cooling trend in weather is causing crop failures. Besides making much of our northern cropland unusable, this meteorological aberration might destroy future crops in more temperate zones by playing havoc with the winds and rains. Second, the explosive price increases for food are proof that we have entered an age of permanent food shortage, in which demand will be inexorably driven ahead of supply by affluence in the rich world and population in the poor. Luckily for all of us, who must eat, this analysis is superficial and inaccurate.

It is true that we have been blessed by unusually mild weather in the last twenty years, and that a well-known meteorologist, Reid Bryson, has guessed the odds against its continuing another twenty to be about 10,000 to one. But as Louis Thompson points out in the Science collection, “weather variability is a much more important consideration in grain production than a cooling trend.” Crop yields could actually be higher with slightly cooler weather; “it is when weather variability [is highest] that yields are lowest. Even if the weather does trend toward the coolness of a century ago, yields will not be significantly reduced unless weather becomes more variable.”

There are, moreover, few signs that we are entering an age of permanent food scarcity. Quite the opposite: as food prices rose, so did investment and production, and prices then fell. All things considered, the world market exhibited surprisingly flexible and rapid response to a sudden stimulus.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the poor perished en masse if grain prices went wild. The world is different today: social conditions in the poor world and grain prices in the international marketplace seldom correlate; for the grain market is dominated by the rich world, which has the money to buy. During 1972 and 1973, corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans all more than doubled their 1971 prices; four new famines struck in 1972 (Philippines, Burundi, Nicaragua, Sudan), while fifteen had occurred in 1971.

Americans may have assumed famine was striking down the rest of the world during the “food shortage” because for the first time in twenty years their food prices were rising faster than their cost of living. But the immediate cause of the rise was a huge grain purchase not by the starving but by Russia, which had committed itself to raising meat consumption, and had fallen short of feedstocks. India never could have made this kind of purchase: it would have cost 3 percent of its gross national product, almost 25 percent of its annual government revenue. As Jean Mayer notes sadly in “Management of Famine Relief” in the Science collection, “There has been a serious famine somewhere practically every year since the end of World War II,” and these tragedies are likely to recur in the future. But they are also likely to have little bearing on the price we pay for bread and steak.

What did the “food shortage” of 1972-1973 prove? It showed how heartless administrators can become when humanitarianism is no longer to their advantage. Three years ago 50 percent of the American food shipped to the poor world was aid; last year the proportion was 15 percent.3 During the 1960s we had been trying, quite literally, to give our surpluses away; for years America had been producing more food than it could get rid of. It saw its stockpiles as a liability which cost half a billion dollars a year to maintain.

What to America was a liability, however, was for the grain-buying nations (practically the rest of the world) protection against widespread hunger in the event of a disaster. In 1961 world grain reserves could feed the entire earth for ninety-five days. As America happily depleted its stockpiles, the figure fell steadily; in 1974 it was twenty-seven days. The grain market is volatile, poorly supervised, and thin (only about 20 percent of the world’s wheat and 3 percent of its rice is sold internationally), and the thinner it gets, the more pronounced the dislocations when they hit. Unless concern for humanity, the profit motive, or some combination of the two moves America to build up its stockpiles, dislocations are likely to recur. It must be stressed, however, that these dislocations are caused by bureaucratic shortcomings and market imperfections, not by inexorable trends.

Malnutrition Myths

Every bureaucracy exaggerates to its advantage the size of the problems it must tackle, and the hunger relief organizations are no exception. In a field where not only basic information, such as caloric intake requirements, but also basic definitions, such as “undernutrition” or “chronic malnutrition,” are highly conjectural, these organizations can bully their facts. Conceptually, malnutrition is a deviation from an ideal, and few things in this world are perfect. Remember that ad about 50 percent of all American housewives suffering from iron poor blood; if you wish to assume that anyone who does not receive daily a sufficient and proper balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins is malnourished, you can say that almost everyone in the poor world and most in the rich world suffer from malnutrition.

This is roughly what the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) did with its first World Food Survey in 1945, in which it “proved” that 60 percent of the planet, then estimated to be about 1.5 billion people, were inadequately nourished. To prove this, as Thomas Poleman points out in the Science collection, all they had to do was leave the typical 10 percent understatement of food supplies in the poor world uncorrected, and posit that the average human being needed 2,500 kilocalories of energy a day.4 This is only 100 less than required for the US Food and Nutrition Board’s “reference man,” a moderately active adult male weighing 70 kilograms (154 pounds).

More recently FAO has altered caloric intake requirement and food supply estimates to “prove” that a more conservative 10 percent of the world’s population, about 400 million people (94 percent of them living in poor countries), are malnourished, although they add that “a less conservative definition of malnutrition might double this figure.” Thus 400 million people has become the magical answer to any question about how many hungry people live in the world. Again and again in this latter-day numerology that figure is faithfully recorded in the pages of Give Us This Day…. Occasionally, it is even improved upon: the Overseas Development Council, for example, places the number of people who “go hungry” for some part of the year at over one billion.

  1. 1

    Lester R. Brown, “The Social Impact of the Green Revolution,” International Conciliation, 1971, quoted in Keith Griffin, The Political Economy of Agrarian Change (Harvard University Press, 1974).

  2. 2

    Lester R. Brown, In the Human Interest (Norton, 1974).

  3. 3

    Emma Rothschild, “Food Politics,” Foreign Affairs, January 1976.

  4. 4

    Poleman demonstrates how difficult it is to interpret what scanty evidence does exist on malnutrition by using food figures from Sri Lanka. Between the lowest class (representing 43 percent of the survey population) and the next lowest (37 percent) a 10 gram protein and 200 kilocalorie energy gap existed, but diet compositions were identical.

    What does this mean? Because the FAO now (quite reasonably) reckons energy needs in South Asia average 1,900 kilocalories daily and protein adequacy to be a function of energy adequacy, it could mean either of two things. If the standard factor of 15 percent is applied to account for wastage between purchase and ingestion, the 200 kilocalorie gap could be interpreted as implying enforced reduced activity among the poor or actual physical deterioration (or both).

    Alternatively, one might postulate caloric adequacy among the element of society which is too poor to waste anything, and which because of the high rate of unemployment in Sri Lanka leads a less active life and thus has lower energy needs. Thus you can have it either way: depending on your assumptions you can prove beyond a statistical doubt that 43 percent of the Ceylonese population suffer protein calorie malnutrition or none do.”

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