Monday, June 9, 2008

The way the world can feed itself (2008)

From the Cooking the Books column of the June 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

That was the headline of an article in the Sunday Times (27 April) by their Economics Editor David Smith. The way he endorsed was allowing “large, technologically sophisticated agro companies” to take over food production from peasant farmers in Africa and elsewhere. Yes, but what will happen to the millions of dispossessed peasants this would create? How will they be able to get money to buy food? But at least he conceded that it is technically feasible to produce enough food to feed the world’s population.

It might have been expected that the recent increase in the world market price of wheat and rice and the resulting food riots in Haiti and other countries would lead to a revival of the views of the Reverend Thomas Malthus, the 18th English parson turned economist, who argued that world poverty and starvation are due to overpopulation, to not being able to produce enough food for everyone. But no. All the pundits and all the spokespersons of international capitalist institutions such as the World Bank and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) seem agreed that the problem is not that enough food cannot be produced to feed the hungry, but that the hungry cannot afford to pay for the food that has already been produced. As Peter Smerdon, Africa spokesman for the WFP put it in an interview with the London Times (8 April):
“it is not a question of availability as one saw in previous drought-induced famines. ‘People can suddenly no longer afford the food they see on store shelves because prices are beyond their reach. It is about accessibility . . .’”
In fact, it seems to be generally admitted that food production could be increased and, indeed, will be increased in response to high prices.
David Smith made the same point we made here in February:
“Set-aside subsidies have been an important part of the common agricultural policy. Farmers have been paid not to produce. Last September, however, EU ministers agreed on a zero set-aside rate for 2007-8, to boost grain production by 10m tons”.
Meanwhile in rice-growing Thailand:
“Fields that have lain fallow are being ploughed and planted; in wet and fertile central Thailand . . . farmers are contemplating three or even four harvests a year, beyond the usual one or two” (London Times, 28 April).
This raises the question of why in a world where there is mass hunger in some parts – 1 billion in “absolute poverty” and a further 854 million who are “food insecure” (London Times 8 April) – this land wasn’t used before to produce more wheat or rice. The answer is obvious: it wasn’t profitable, the price wasn’t high enough.

The ironic thing is that this extra food production will not benefit those in “absolute poverty” since they still won’t be able to afford to buy it. And if prices fall again, as they might well do since the rise is partly due to a speculative boom amongst commodity traders, then the land will be taken out of production again. That’s the way the market works. But what a way to run the world.

There is an obvious solution: produce food directly for people to eat. But, first, the land and all the rest of the world’s resources, industrial as well as natural, will have to stop being the private property of rich individuals, multinational corporations and states and become the common heritage of all humanity. On this basis enough food could rapidly be produced to eliminate starvation immediately and, within a few years, to provide every man, woman and child on the planet with an adequate diet.