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.
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.
When these numbers are used to describe the extent of serious hunger, they overstate the problem by a whole order of magnitude. Malnutrition is a misleading term; it is like sickness. Its shades of severity range from vitamin deficiencies to chronic protein calorie malnutrition of the Gomez-3 variety, just as respiratory ailments range from sore throats to terminal tuberculosis. Few of us can say our health or diet is biologically optimal; many, on the other hand, can say it is biologically acceptable. Malnutrition is usefully defined in functional rather than aesthetic terms—as a state, say, in which a 1 percent increase in food consumption leads to more than a 1 percent increase in activity and energy. A body which is truly hungry devotes its energy to maintaining itself; it can “afford” practically no other activity. If it is given extra calories, it will resume normal physical activities at a rate higher than that of the increase in nutrition. But such a definition eliminates a great deal of what is defined as malnutrition in the world.
Whom does this leave? Most importantly, it leaves the chronically malnourished—those who are physically threatened by malnutrition. A World Health Organization estimate puts the number of severely malnourished children under five in the world at ten million. While all figures in the food field may be regarded with skepticism, WHO is a health organization, and need not inflate its hunger figures for its own good. If ten million infants are chronically malnourished, this would imply, in view of the ratio of children to adults in the poor world, a total population of about seventy million chronically malnourished people. This figure, however, would tend to be on the high side, for children under five need more protein and calories for their body weight than adults do—pound for pound, often up to 60 percent more. For seventy million people to be threatened with death through starvation in a world as rich as ours is so shocking and outrageous that it may tend to obscure the fact that this is less than 2 percent of the world’s population—a lower proportion, in all likelihood, than ever before.
It is, moreover, a proportion which is small enough to be eliminated altogether. Here, however, is where the hunger relief lobby’s rhetoric and inflated figures hurt its clients. Food relief and development projects for seventy million people, spread across perhaps ninety countries, are a manageable undertaking, and with some international cooperation could be attempted fairly easily. If on the other hand the number of starving were believed to be a billion the task might seem unmanageable or hopeless, and for the governments involved, politically dangerous to boot. Fear of social change among the ruling elites is no small consideration in attempts to eliminate hunger. During much of the Sahelian drought Chad’s president actually refused food aid. A large proportion of his people were hungry, and hungry people, he knew, were inactive people, in no condition to rebel against a well-fed army.
Where do the desperately hungry live? The answer may seem surprising. Although millions do live in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, since a quarter of the poor world’s population inhabit the subcontinent, many more proportionately live in some of the poor nations of the Caribbean, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and especially Africa. India may be the workhorse for famine metaphors, but the fact is that at least twenty-six nations—including Haiti, Colombia, North Vietnam, and Algeria—are estimated to have lower per capita protein consumption, and it is Zaire, not Bangladesh, whose inhabitants receive less protein than any other nation.
India, we often forget, is one of the world’s great civilizations and great powers; for a state of 600 million simply to function at all it must have reached an impressive stage of political and economic development. Poor as it is, India has a highly sophisticated system of social services. As one Indian official quoted in Give Us This Day… explains it, “For a person to starve in Calcutta, he would have to be in social isolation—either a crazy person, or an old and sick person who literally couldn’t cry out for help.” There are many nations, especially in Africa, which virtually lack social services altogether—where to live is to live in social isolation. It is here, far from newsmen’s hotels and photographer’s cameras, that people literally do die of hunger.
This is reflected in the death rates. Although India’s states of health and nutrition horrify Westerners, and rightly, life expectancy there is about fifty-three years, higher than that of nineteenth-century European nobility. Life expectancy in Sahelian Africa, on the other hand, is under forty, and in some areas under thirty. Death rates for the Sahelian region as a whole are 50 percent higher than India’s. In the last three years up to half a million people may have died quietly in remote corners of Ethiopia from such diseases as cholera that were exacerbated by famine. Yet we never heard from those places. They had no public health officers, reporters, or diplomats to represent them. India has the world’s third largest population of scientists and college graduates, as well as the ninth largest industrial sector, fourth largest army, and sixth largest atomic force; the corruption, waste, and red tape of relief efforts notwithstanding, the Indian poor are immeasurably better off because the rest of the world hears about it when India is hit by famine, and sends food, at least part of which is not funnelled away from those who most need it.
With all the talk about starvation, it is seldom if ever mentioned how extremely difficult it is to die from it. People are not docile about dying; they fight to live, and man is an exceptionally rugged animal. He has always been able to survive conditions which quickly killed off other mammals. Conditions must be fantastically adverse for people to succumb to death from hunger. During the recent Sahelian famines tribes lived on practically nothing for seasons, and sometimes even years, before the death rates started going up. And when they went up, as Michael Latham explains in the Science collection, very few of the deaths were ostensibly caused by “starvation or malnutrition, but deaths from measles, respiratory infections, and other infectious diseases were…very much above prefamine levels.”5
To say that one dies from starvation is to say that the body wards off tuberculosis, diptheria, small pox, dysentery, and whatever else while its defenses progressively break down; it is a very unlikely situation. This is why so few poor governments see death by starvation as a serious problem, and concentrate on medical relief rather than food. It may seem carping or even inhumane to point out that death by starvation is more of an emotional codeword than an actual condition, but one must realize that the casual mass exploitation of the concept by the Times and others has made us take starvation for granted. When someone is in danger of starving to death, he or she is facing conditions none of us in the rich world can understand or even imagine.
The Causes of Hunger
Do people starve because they must starve?
The plausible and widely accepted answer is, yes. A popular Malthusian syllogism explains why: people starve when there is too little food to go around; because of constant population expansion there is already too little food to go around, and there will be even less in the future; therefore, people must starve, and starve in ever greater numbers. What is most puzzling about this syllogism is that it stands undisputed when so many facts could upset it.
There is no logistical justification for hunger of any kind anywhere; enough food is produced each year to feed everyone on earth comfortably. The Japanese get by with less than 600 pounds of grain per person annually6 (they are, in fact, among the best nourished people on earth), yet there is less food available per person in Japan than in the world as a whole. For 1974 somewhere between 590 and 720 pounds of foodgrain, depending on whose figures one believes (a reasonable middle estimate might be 650 pounds), were available for each person in the world, not including reserves. Put another way, if 1.3 billion tons of grain are produced and one person could get by on 500 pounds, the world could feed—and feed well—5.2 billion people, 800 million more than the highest estimates for today’s population.
The availability of food per person, moreover, is increasing, not declining. In 1972-1973, the year that supposedly signaled the beginning of a chronic world food shortage, the most reasonable estimate for grain production per person on earth was 632 pounds; yet in 1960, a year of supposed plenty, the comparable figure was under 600. At 500 pounds of grain per person the world in 1960 could have supported 300 million more people than the highest population estimates claimed existed; by 1973, despite the fact that world population had grown by almost a billion in the meantime, the new “margin of safety” was 600 million.
Why, then, do people starve?
Re-examine the Malthusian syllogism: it blames today’s hunger not on the wealth of the rich, but on the sexual habits of the poor. It neatly avoids the issue of inequality, when it is inequality and inequality alone that can be blamed for hunger today.
People in the rich world (Europe and Russia, countries settled by descendants of the English, Israel, Japan) consume 40 percent more calories and 70 percent more protein than the rest of the world, and use almost three times as much grain.7 Inequality in consumption, moreover, is rising: food production per capita for the world as a whole has risen about 9 percent since 1960. But during those same fifteen years inequality in calorie consumption has risen 4 percent, in protein consumption 18 percent, and in grain use about 20 percent. 8
Although grain use in the poor world averages about 430 pounds per capita, inequality here is marked: Argentina, one of the richest of the poor world nations, uses about 900 pounds per person (more than West Germany) while Bangladesh must make do with about 300. Even the poorest nations in the world, however, probably produce enough food to provide adequately for all their people. The data on age, sex, weight, and activity levels in the poor world suggest that any poor nation with thirty-nine grams of protein a day and 285 pounds of grain a year per capita has enough so that its inhabitants need not suffer from malnutrition of any sort. Only two nations in the world (Liberia and Zaire) might fall below these minimums, although the margins of error in their food-production estimates are sufficiently large that they may not.
As James Gavan and John Dixon point out in their essay “India: A Perspective on the Food Situation” in the Science collection, it is unequal food distribution—not lack of production—that causes hunger in India. Even in the famine years of 1965 and 1966 the nation had 13 percent more food than it needed to feed everyone adequately. Similarly, Bangladesh today probably produces enough food to prevent malnutrition altogether, but the rich consume 30 percent more calories than the poor (as well as twice as much protein and several times as much grain). A flourishing black market—approved by the government—ships perhaps as much as a third of all marketed grain into India, for in Bangladesh the rupee is a prized currency.
The FAO, in its State of Food and Agriculture 1974, repeats its claim that “malnutrition…is strongly correlated with poverty.” It is perhaps more significant that marked social inequality, which is also “strongly correlated” with extreme poverty, in fact probably causes malnutrition. Brazil has vast numbers of the underfed (its northeast region is said to be one of the grimmest in the world) while China has very few; yet China’s per capita GNP is only a third as high as Brazil’s.
With holocaust through atomic warfare at least temporarily less likely and the threat of environmental self-destruction apparently overrated, the Times collection is not the only publication that has now picked up the baton of Malthusianism. Malthusians believe they have two unanswerable propositions: first, that the poor world is procreating away all its advances in crop production; second, that the world’s population is doubling every thirty-five years, and it is impossible for food production to keep pace with this. Fortunately for the poor of the world, neither proposition stands up.
It is true that per capita increases in food production since World War II have been about five times as rapid in the rich countries as in the poor (1.5 versus 0.3 percent per year), that total food production has risen just slightly faster in the poor world than in the rich, and that the poor world’s population has been growing twice as rapidly. But does this mean the poor are converting grain into babies and saving none to improve their lives?
Not necessarily. The economies of rich nations and poor nations work very differently: in the former, economic growth is practically divorced from population growth. In the latter, labor rather than technology is the primary factor stimulating growth, so that growth of the economy hinges on growth of the labor force. One could argue that a poor nation with 3.3 and 3.0 percent rates of growth per annum for food production and population could quadruple its annual per capita food increase by lowering population growth to 2 percent. But poor nations are characterized by low productivity per worker. Under existing conditions it is more likely that lowering the growth of the labor force by a third would cut the growth of output by a third, and hence slash the already pitifully low rate of increase in food consumption by a third.9
It is the poorest of the poor who depend most on population growth for their economic welfare, and for them it is not irrational to produce more children. People will be better fed in poor countries not simply by making them lower their birth rates (if accomplished through coercion, as now seems likely will be tried, in India’s Punjab, this could lead to economic as well as political tragedy). What is needed instead are the institutional changes which would make it in the interest of the poor to lower their own birth rates. To be 95 percent sure that one will see a son reach adulthood, one must have at least six children in India today; with better health care, more of the children born would grow up, and parents would be less inclined to produce “spare” children. Education raises one’s aspirations and decreases the desire for children. Jobs for women open up opportunities for self-fulfillment outside the nursery.
In every nation where equality of income has increased, fertility has decreased, perhaps because parents no longer need to depend on their children as a source of income and old-age security. Similarly, improving workers’ productivity eliminates their main reason for having large families: it is no longer necessary to have an army of sons in the fields for a family to scratch out a living.
In agriculture, raising worker productivity means increasing crop yields per acre. Few people realize the potential which lies here. We think Bangladesh a basket case because it uses every inch of its land, sends 85 percent of its work force to the fields, and still seems to grow too little food to get by. But how many of us know that rice yields per hectare in Bangladesh are only 53 percent as great as the world average, 24 percent as great as America’s, and only 15 percent as great as can be obtained on experimental stations in Bangladesh? Were Bangladesh merely to raise its rice yields to the world average, its per capita production would be over 530 pounds, higher than Japan’s at the beginning of the 1960s. There is no technical reason why this could not be done.
Moreover, the world yields for most crops are only a fraction of the maximums that have actually been obtained: for wheat the fraction is one-third; for maize and sorghum, one-fourth; for rice, one-fifth. In agricultural colleges, research stations, and crop improvement centers today there is already enough know-how literally to flood the world with food. Roger Revelle has estimated that the earth could feed between thirty-eight and forty-eight billion people on a European diet, were we to plow all unused but cultivable land around the world and farm it with the methods and technology practiced in Iowa today. 10
If this estimate’s range seems too precise, its order of magnitude is certainly correct. And this order of magnitude understates the world’s feeding potential. As various articles in the Science collection’s sections on research and basic biology show,11 tropical soils may hold more agricultural promise than we thought, pest control may save a larger portion of the crop, and genetic improvements not yet undertaken may lead to substantial increments in yields. The best wheat field on earth, for example, yields only half its genetic potential; the best banana grove, only a tenth. Demographers now say we should expect about seven billion people by the year 2000; it would be highly unrealistic to say that we could feed seventy billion by then, but it would not be inaccurate to say we could have the technology to do so.
I have argued that the present food situation is not as desperate as reported, and the future not as hopeless as predicted; that our misunderstanding of food realities demonstrates how little we actually know about the problem. If, as I assumed at the beginning of this article, we wish to help the poor, where do we go from here? We could start by examining why we know least about the world’s poor themselves. Why do we know so little about their lives and their problems? It is certainly not because of a shortage of research funds and fact-finding commissions. Why, moreover, do the myriad fact-finding groups always seem to require high budgets, limousines, interpreters, and the best hotel suites in town? The answer is symptomatic of the problem: it is below our dignity to learn about the poor by working with them or living with them. We are ignorant about the poor of the earth because we are separated from them by a social and economic gap that they are unable to cross, and that we are unwilling to.
In the recent past we have seen the birth of a world economy and the development of an international division of labor. Although many complex factors have produced this division, and there are variations within it, it is still true that on one side have been those whose economic surplus was being expropriated, on the other those who were expropriating it. This international division of labor allowed the countries which are now rich to develop and multiply their productive resources; while growth was stifled and perverted in many of the countries which are now poor. As perhaps a quarter of the world’s population was propelled up to a level of material comfort enjoyed a few generations before only by the aristocracy, fully half the world saw its standard of living stagnate and in some cases (Indonesia, perhaps Bangladesh) even decline.12 It is impossible to separate the issue of unequal food distribution (which is the question behind the food crisis, not some absolute lack of food) from the acceleration of inequality which the development of the world economy has encouraged. Historically, the food crisis is merely the most recent in a long series of manifestations of inequality between the rich and the poor worlds.
This inequality, however, cannot be separated from productivity, for it is differing rates of growth in productivity that have caused it. An American may use five times as much grain as an Indian, but this is so because he can buy five times as much, and he can buy five times as much because, farmer to farmer, he produces seventy-five times as much. The plaintive calls for Americans to keep their standard of living high but to go without hamburger, or for nations to redistribute their food supplies without altering the balance of productive resources, have gone unheeded because inequality cannot be eliminated by welfare-style transfers of income. Inequality is inextricably linked with production: the only way the nations of the world can become more equal is through making their productivities more equal.
How, then, can the poor world’s productivity be raised? As Pierre Crosson explains in the Science collection, three conditions must be satisfied to expand food production: 1) technology must exist; 2) farmers must know how to use it efficiently; 3) they must have incentives to use it. The first condition is already satisfied. You don’t need tractors, spray planes, and other trappings of the Green Revolution to raise yields. With know-how and little else (a few simple hand tools, some good seeds, a little pesticide, manure or fertilizer) a diligent but poor farmer can produce at least one crop a year with yields higher than those now harvested in rich countries.
This is not easy, but it can be done, and men such as Reverend Carl Reither, a missionary in the town of Feni, Bangladesh, and Dr. Dale Haws, an agronomist in the Philippines, have shown farmers how to do it. (To my knowledge, nothing has yet been written about the extraordinary Rev. Reither. On Haws’s low-investment harvest, see Research Highlights for 1974.13 ) Poor countries, moreover, are tropical countries. With an investment in irrigation and drainage which in most cases pays for itself in less than two years, the poor farmer can be harvesting three crops a year to our one.
Fulfilling the second condition depends on reaching the smallest, poorest farmer. There are no general rules for doing this. Voluntary farmer associations, which flourished in Japan, have failed in the Philippines. The brutal kolkhoz system of rounding up peasants, dropping them on a farm, and making them work for the state, which is still holding back Russian agriculture, is said to have had some limited success in Tanzania. Information does not seek out its audience; word of mouth, open-air meetings, even color TV will not bring a message across to peasant farmers unless a number of other factors encourage them to be receptive, including their culture, their degree of political development, the position of farmers in the social system, and the inclinations of their leaders. South Korea and Taiwan are currently touted as models for poor world agricultural development, their experience supposedly proving that income redistribution is a precondition for progress and that political development is an important form of economic development. An educated, disciplined mass party or voting public, so the argument runs, is only a step away from an educated, disciplined labor force.
There is truth in these claims, but a crucial—and almost totally ignored—reason that agriculture has been so successful in those countries since World War II is that they were Japanese colonies before the war. Where the other imperial powers wanted export earnings from their colonies, Japan needed food, and built the roads, market system, and the rest of the “infrastructure” to deliver it. Small farmers in South Korea and Taiwan were reached not through social justice but foreign fiat; yields began to rise sharply long before land reform programs even existed.
The farmer’s life is not only strenuous, boring, and poorly paid, but brutal. Through most of the world (India’s Punjab experience perhaps being a significant exception) successful efforts to reach him and raise his productivity have been accompanied by some sort of coercion. The lower his level of political culture (his ability, if you will, to be moved to act by the existing political channels), the greater has been the use of force in changing his situation, for better or worse.
The third condition implies that if national needs are to be fulfilled it must be in the interest of the small farmer to fulfill them, since he produces the lion’s share of crops in every poor nation. This means regulating the power and the privileges of the classes that exploit him. Class privilege in the Philippines, for example, causes yields to stagnate and population to explode. Most of the labor is tenant or landless, and the tenure system puts the burden of risk on the campesino; if the crop fails, he pays, and if it thrives it is the landlord who prospers. Thus, the only really safe investment a peasant can make is children: they don’t eat much, or need clothes or schooling, and they start earning their living at about age five. Because unemployment rates are high, it is good to have many children so that one or two are always employed; because infant mortality is high, it is good to have many children so that a few might grow up to support you when you are too weak to work. On the other hand, in Japan, a former poor nation, the conflict between national needs and individual aspirations was largely eliminated regarding agricultural production. Land is more equally distributed, irrigation, pesticides, fertilizers, good seeds, credit, guaranteed markets, high support prices are easily available. It is in the farmer’s interest to raise a good crop.
On millions of small farms throughout the world, optimum production and social justice are closely linked: you probably can’t have one for any length of time without the other.14 This is because, in the world economy, it is the structure rather than the fact of poverty that perpetuates poverty. As Mao Tse-tung, the great economic-development genius of our age, has proven, within at least one poor nation vast reserves of unused productive power can be liberated by altering the social system. A little bit of justice goes a long way in production. Land reform, for example, has been credited with raising production in many countries where it is enacted; although the claim is no doubt exaggerated, we can see why it should be conducive to higher yields. With effective land redistribution, many more farmers get a homestead. Thus, rural unemployment (commonly 30 percent) tends to disappear. With land (and thus money) of their own, the former poor buy more food and become stronger; hence the quantity and the quality of the labor force simultaneously increase.
Moreover, the labor force now has reason to work hard and seek out new ways to improve yields. Output improves, and because it is more evenly distributed, so do health and education, which in turn further improve output. Farm demand leads now to appropriate industrialization—shoes, hammocks, roofs (not El Dorados)—which in turn leads to greater demand for farm goods, and so on. It has been estimated that Brazil could raise its crop output immediately by 20 percent simply by rearranging factors of production (i.e., land reform).15 Such an estimate, however, takes into account neither the current political and social obstacles to rearranging those factors nor the present and future social dividends which would be reaped. Clearly both are very great.
When we put the proportion of poor and hungry around the world in historical perpective we can prove that things have never been better. But if we choose to compare the number of people who could be well fed with the number who are well fed, we can also prove that things have never been worse. Little as we know about the food crisis, we know that it is a social, not a technical, problem; the know-how, and even the food, to eliminate hunger are already here.
If we wish to help the poor of the earth, what should we be doing? Our usual, self-indulgent response is to shed crocodile tears over the starving or to accept as inevitable the prospect of emaciated bodies by dirt roadsides. As I have already explained, this does not merely leave the poor unaffected; it can hurt them. If man is a rational animal with a drive for self-improvement we would be better advised to think whether our governments in the rich world are, deliberately or inadvertently, helping to erect further social barriers to the progress of the poor; for literally hundreds of millions of people today are living in poverty that is, technologically speaking, totally unnecessary. The first step toward helping the poor is to stop hurting them, and we have a long way to go before we get that far.
February 19, 1976
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). ↩
Lester R. Brown, In the Human Interest (Norton, 1974). ↩
Emma Rothschild, “Food Politics,” Foreign Affairs, January 1976. ↩
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. ↩
It should be noted that hunger usually picks off children, not adults. Children need both more food and more special kinds of food, pound for pound, than adults, and when things get tough they are likely, pound for pound, to get less. They are often not strong enough or old enough to go out and feed themselves, and so instead they die: almost half the deaths in Central Africa are among children under five, and in Indonesia a one-year-old has worse odds of surviving another year than a sixty-one-year-old. With food, as with so many other things in life, those most desperately in need of your help cannot assault you for it; at best they can wheedle and beg. ↩
FAO, Food Balance Sheets. ↩
The rich consume their grain primarily indirectly (feedstocks converted into animal protein). The poor’s consumption is mainly direct (gruels, breads, noodles, rice dishes). ↩
Like death, food consumption is a biological process and hence an equalizer of men: one can spend 100 times as much money as someone else, or use 500 times as much energy, but one cannot, over any length of time, eat three times as much food. In a world of inequality, however, levelers cut both ways: I can survive on one-hundredth of your income and one-five-hundredth of your energy use, but I shall die if my calorie consumption is only 30 percent of yours consistently. ↩
Simon Kuznets is one of the few American economists who have worked on this problem. See his Modern Economic Growth (Yale University Press, 1966), Economic Growth of Nations (Harvard University Press, 1971), and Population, Capital, and Growth (Norton, 1974). ↩
Scientific American, September 1974. ↩
S.H. Wittwer, “Food Production: Technology and the Resource Base”; W.B. Ennis, Jr., W.M. Dowler, W. Klassen, “Crop Protection to Increase Food Supplies”; P.A. Sanchez and S.W. Buol, “Soils of the Tropics and the World Food Crisis”; I. Zeitlich, “Improving the Efficiency of Photo-synthesis.” ↩
See Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World System (Academic Press, 1975); Samir Amin, Accumulation on a World Scale (Monthly Review Press, 1972); A. Emmanuel, Unequal Exchange (Monthly Review Press, 1973). For the effect of the world economy on particular areas, see the work of Clifford Geertz (Indonesia), André Gunder Frank (Latin America), and Giovanni Arrighi (Africa). ↩
International Rice Research Institute, Los Baños, Philippines; see also my forthcoming “Los Baños Diary,” R.F. Illustrated, published by the Rockefeller Foundation, New York. ↩
There are of course exceptions: Costa Rica exports more meat every year while growing numbers at home go hungry; South Vietnam in the last six months may have seen its crop production and its numbers of malnourished fall simultaneously. We may suspect, however, that the exceptions are temporary exceptions: in the first case, the contradiction between justice and production may eventually damage production, in the second, where the contradiction between justice and production reportedly is being solved, we might expect production to be enhanced. ↩
W.R. Cline, Economic Consequences of Land Reform in Brazil, quoted in Keith Griffin, The Political Economy of Agrarian Change (Harvard University Press, 1974). ↩