Saturday, October 5, 2019

Preventing Abundance (1973)

From the January 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

We are told that hunger and malnutrition exist in the world today because there is not enough food to go around; that there are, in short, more people than can adequately be fed. Socialists emphatically repudiate this. The evidence points to the fact that man has developed the means of production to a level where it is now technically possible to abolish hunger. Technically possible, but not socially possible within the present relations of production. Capitalism is a system of commodity production, of buying and selling, where the profit motive dominates the productive activity of men and women. Market considerations take precedence over human need. The production of wealth takes place only where the owners of the means of life — the capitalist class — hope to sell their products at a profit on the world markets. The market economy bears no relation to the needs of human beings. Human priorities are sacrificed to the priorities of the profit motive.

The present state of the horticultural industry, both in this country and in Europe, is an object lesson in the restrictive nature of the market economy. For the past five or ten years the viability (ability to make a profit) of parts of the industry has been threatened by the “overproduction” of apples and pears. Increased orchard planting since the Second World War in places such as North Italy (with the help of Marshall Aid) and the Rhone valley in France (where low interest government loans were given to repatriates from Algeria) has vastly increased output. Average apple crops amount to 6m. tons and reached 7.2m. tons in 1969/70. In the following season a record pear crop of 3.2m. tons was recorded. Such large crops had not been planned for; markets were unable to absorb the produce and farmers, looking for some way to vent their frustration, dumped apples in the streets. Seventy-five per cent only of the 1967-68 apple crop was consumed in any shape or form. In other words, a quarter was left to rot — it was not worth while even using it as animal fodder or for industrial alcohol.

Aiding Industry
In Britain too investments have been made in orchards in order to stimulate production. It could hardly be otherwise. Each group of capitalists hope to maximise their profits by capturing as large a slice of the market for themselves as possible. In this they have been backed up by both the major parties of capitalism. The Horticulture Act of 1960 provided grants of up to £7.5m. spread over five years, to be paid out under a Horticultural Improvement Scheme aimed at improving efficiency among growers. The grants were increased in 1964 to £24m.; and again by the Agriculture Act 1970, this time to a maximum of £47m.

Of course these sums were not simply largesse. They were expected to benefit the capitalist class as a whole. As Christopher Soames, Minister of Agriculture at the time, pointed out, it was the intention of the government to “bring our horticultural production and marketing to a higher state of competitive efficiency”. He also hoped the industry would then be in a better position to ward off foreign competition so that the promise of possible reductions in tariffs could be used as a bargaining device in future trade negotiations.
  This is a sensible and realistic policy to adopt with regard to the industry in modern times, and is not being done because the industry is in a parlous state. It is being done to make it more competitive.
(Hansard 27 November 1963 cols. 276 & 280)
This has always been the yardstick by which governments measure the usefulness or otherwise of aiding industry. The 1968 Report of the Economic Development Council for Agriculture, Agriculture's Import Saving Role, pointed out that it might be possible for British capitalism to save itself the sum of £220m. a year by the mid-1970s through import substitution. One item suggested for saving was the annual £25m. spent on top fruit. Moreover, “there was scope for expansion of production and import substitution on a significant scale and at comparatively small cost” (Agriculture — Report etc. from the Select Committee 1968-69 H.C. 137 HMSO p.xxviii). However there appeared one small snag — only half the proposed increase in output could be expected to be absorbed by greater demand due to increasing population and income per head. The EDC report skated over the difficulty by hoping that the remainder might be exported.

Potential Abundance
This growing potential for abundance did cause some comment. In his statement to the House of Commons on 27 November 1963 Soames declared that imports at “unrealistically low prices” did arise from surpluses of varying degrees and that
  It is likely that such surpluses will reappear from time to time, so means to prevent them from undermining our market will continue to be necessary . . . We appreciate that measures must be taken to ensure that dumped produce does not undermine the market.
(Hansard 27 November 1963 cols. 277-179)
The Fruit Production Council were of the opinion that
 Apple and pear production is increasing throughout the world and particularly on the Continent of Europe, at an alarming rate.
(Horticulture — Report etc. from the Select Committee on Agriculture’s Sub-Committee 1967-68 H.C.445 HMSO p.292 (emphasis added).
When faced with this kind of "problem” capitalism can react in a number of ways. It can attempt to stimulate demand; it can try to eliminate competition; or it can cut back production and deliberately reduce productive capacity by destroying resources.

Attempts at stimulating demand have met with only limited success. It had been hoped that the Apple and Pear Development Council, established in 1966, would increase sales through an advertising campaign designed to promote British apples and pears. Its efforts were something less than a raving success. Who now remembers their slogan “Finish your meal with an English apple”? They had to report in July 1968 that “despite the efforts of both importing organisations and the UK growers to increase consumption levels there is a danger of supply outstripping demand”. Then, admitting defeat in the face of the inability to plan rationally under capitalism, they went on to say
  The Council must make it quite clear that publicity is no panacea for oversupply . . . The industry can only operate in conditions of reasonable stability. Glut conditions, uneconomic returns and violent swings in supplies are of no use to the home grower . . .  In the Council’s view, the only way to maintain reasonable conditions is by physical means such as a quota system based on quantity ... no amount of marketing skill, publicity or anything else can compete against a glutted market.
(Horticulture Report p. 184-5)
Left to Rot
In 1969 British markets shuddered under a gigantic flow of apples. Prices hit rock bottom for the producers; some were only getting 2d or 3d a pound for best quality produce. Anything other than grade one was being thrown away and farmers were leaving fruit to rot on the trees. Gerald Nabarro complained to the House of Commons that in his own constituency
   250 tons of Lord Lambourn and Laxton’s Fortune were left unpicked at Leighsinton, near Malvern . . . [and that] . . . 1,200 boxes of Melba — a very early variety — were put into store but lay unsold and are now rotting in their boxes, utterly wasted.
(Hansard 13 December 1969 col. 1665)
The gravity with which MPs treated the problem can be gauged from the fact that they found time (about 4½ hours) to have two debates on this in under two weeks. The debates concentrated on the financial implications for capitalism of the advent of this abundance. Not one of the speakers in the debates expressed any emotion remotely approaching joy that human ingenuity had resulted in plenty. Rather the opposite. Most were concerned that growers would suffer financially.

“Naturally, we must see that our growers have a viable position” said Alfred Morris, Labour MP for Wythenshaw, on 10 November (col. 139) assuring his Party’s concern for the continued prosperity of the industry. David Crouch, representing Canterbury, (somewhat nearer to the problem) after a bit of useless jingoistic nonsense to the effect that “The English apple is in my opinion second to none in the world” continued:
  I am not seeking to raise the price for the British housewife at a time of severe increase in the price of foodstuffs. It would be irresponsible to suggest that, but I have a duty to be concerned not only with the price the consumer pays but that the price should be a fair one for the British farmer, a fair and reasonable price to keep the British grower in being.
(Hansard 10 November 1969 col. 126)
But all the demands that the quota be decreased were to no avail. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, Gwyneth Dunwoody, was satisfied that “the decision reached is the best in the widest national interest” (Hansard 3 November 1969 col. 1670).

Resources Destroyed
For this capitalist “problem” the government have found a suitable capitalist “solution”. Productive resources are to be destroyed. This monstrous decision was taken after a total of less than half an hour’s debate in both Houses of Parliament.

Such action had been common policy on the Continent for a number of years and had been suggested as a way out for British growers in 1964. During the detailed debates on the Agriculture and Horticulture Bill of that year MPs representing constituencies where fruit-growing interests were strong had urged that the Improvement Grants be increased from one third to one half of the cost of grubbing up old orchards. They hoped that the increase might encourage farmers with only a few trees to dig them up. This would remove the poorer quality fruit which in glut conditions tended to spoil the market for the big growers. As it was, of the £8m. made available in 1960, only £2½m had been taken up because the scheme benefitted only the contractors who removed the trees and not the farmer who had to borrow the other two thirds of the money needed. Maxwell Hyslop, MP for Tiverton, put it this way:
  The point I was endeavouring to make was that, as productive capacity is demonstrably in excess of what is required, there is considerable merit in giving further incentive to reduce that capacity.
(Official Report Standing Committee “B” Agriculture and Horticulture Bill 30 January 1964 (emphasis added).
In his call for more “effective” action he was only reflecting the view of Liberal MP for Montgomery, Emlyn Hooson, who had stated that “obsolete” orchards should have been grubbed out years ago.
  I ask the Minister, why not a 100 per cent grant for grubbing out orchards. This would be of great benefit to the country.
(Hansard 12 December 1963 col. 632)
What distinguishes these grants from the Farm Capital Grant (Variation) Scheme of last year is that they did not preclude replanting. As such they might have something to recommend them in that a greater output may be achieved from heavier cropping varieties developed since the orchard was planted, often up to fifty years ago. The 1971 Scheme however specifically provides that if the grant is paid the grower must undertake not to replant his orchard for at least five years. When asked to elaborate on the precise meaning of the words “restricting planting” in this latest Order, Earl Ferrers explained:
  The aim is to encourage something of a crash programme of grubbing. It is no part of the purpose of these schemes for orchards which are grubbed up with their assistance to be replanted with new apple and pear trees.
(Lords Hansard 3 August 1971 col. 1088)
In addition the grant was to be at the full rate of standard grubbing costs. Again it was seen to be in the interests of capitalism as a whole that these grants should be made as the orchards, said Junior Minister Anthony Stodart,
  are a source of quite considerable weakness to the rest of the industry. We cannot afford a weakness of this kind.
(Hansard 30 July 1971 col. 1024) (emphasis added)
Profit the Aim
These grants, it is hoped, will steady the market enough to encourage further investment in the industry and thus make it more profitable. For that is really the whole object of the exercise. The primary function of farmers is not the growing of food that will satisfy a basic human need; their main aim in business is the accumulation of profit. In a memorandum to the House of Commons Select Committee’s Sub-committee on Horticulture, the National Farmers’ Union reminded them that:
  When all is said and done, what counts is whether at the end of the day the producer has sufficient profit to reward his employees and himself . . . and to provide as good a return on the capital he has invested as he would have received had it been invested elsewhere. Generally speaking a new attitude requires to be engendered on horticultural prices which would acknowledge that the grower is entitled to a fair return.
(Horticulture Report p.161)
In hot pursuit of this “fair return” growers had, with the aid of government grants amounting to £140,000, cleared 10,000 acres (about ten per cent) of British orchards. It then became clear that this was not enough; the clearance of another 5,000 acres would be necessary. But even this did not satisfy the present Minister of Agriculture, James Prior, who is reported to have said “I want to see an expanded grubbing-up programme for apples whether we are in the Common Market or outside . . . I must tell you outright to look very carefully at your investment” (The Times 8 January 1971). This will entail the grubbing-up of old but pretty orchards, and their replacement by vast plantations of uniform varieties of fruit. Already one contractor alone has bulldozed over 700 acres in Kent, and this year another 875 farmers have taken up grants worth £300,000 to destroy 6,150 acres of apples and pears. Before the grant scheme runs out in March of next year Prior hopes to have persuaded growers to clear a further 9,000 acres.

How successful all this will be in restoring scarcity to its dominant place in the capitalist way of life remains doubtful. It has been reliably reported (Sunday Times 8 July 1971) that mini-trees have been planted at a density of 50,000 to the acre compared to the normal 120 to the acre. These would give an output, not of the normal 8 tons to the acre, but a massive 100 tons of apples per acre every two years. It may not be long before we see the whole sad spectacle repeating itself. Capitalism cannot bring together the plenty and the poor so that the former eliminates the latter.
Gwynn Thomas

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