Give Us This Day
A Report on the World Food Crisis
by the Staff of The New York Times
Arno, 336 pp., $10.00
Food: Politics, Economics, Nutrition and Research
edited by Philip H. Abelson
American Association for the Advancement of Science (Washington, DC), 202 pp., $4.95 (paper)
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.” 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 …