The Earth’s population is now just over 6 billion, and rising. However, it is unlikely to just carry on increasing: with many now choosing to have fewer children, the likelihood is that population will level off around 2050, at around 10 billion (according to the best estimates of UN demographers). Socialist society will of course have to feed these billions, something that the present profit-based system is all too plainly unable to do. As argued by Colin Tudge in So Shall We Reap (Penguin 2004), it would not be at all difficult to feed even 10 billion, as long as agriculture were organised along sensible (his word is ‘enlightened’) lines.
The total land area of the planet is about 12 billion hectares, but only 1.3 billion hectares can currently be used as arable land. Even with a population of 10 billion, this would mean 0.13 hectares per person, or something over a third of an acre. If farmed by means of intensive horticulture (e.g. for tomatoes, avocados, mushrooms), a plot this size could feed dozens. But horticulture on a very large scale is hardly practicable, and ordinary arable farming has to be the essential basis for cultivating land. Proper mixtures of crops and livestock on mixed farms are in fact the best approach.
The average yield in England is about eight tonnes of wheat per hectare per year, enough to feed a couple of dozen people; so the 0.13 hectare per person available once global population settles down would be plenty to feed three or four. The conclusion of such calculations is inescapable: even without genetically-modified crops, the Earth can produce more than enough to feed likely future populations. Take account of the fact that the area under cultivation might be doubled, and fears of overpopulation and appalling famines seem to vanish. We need not take on board all of Tudge’s ideas about food cultivation to accept his general point that more than enough food could be produced with current knowledge, resources and techniques, without a need for new technological discoveries.
Wheat, rice and maize are the three most important crops, and they can be produced in sufficient quantity to feed humanity, to ensure that nobody dies of malnutrition and no child goes to bed crying of hunger. A mixed diet of these cereals, together with fresh fruit and vegetables, plus some meat and fish as individuals desire, is just what the doctor (and the planet) ordered. To quote Tudge:
“when agriculture is expressly designed to feed people, all the associated problems seem to solve themselves. In essence, feeding people is easy.”
(We suspect that ‘easy’ here is an exaggeration — ‘straightforward’ seems a better choice of word.)
So why does it not happen now? Tudge’s answer is essentially the one that Socialists would give: food is produced for profit, and those who have no or very little money do not constitute a market. He identifies the current capitalist model as monetarised, industrialised, corporatised and globalised (MICG, for short). The interests of corporations, treating agriculture as just another industry to be milked for profits, take precedence over those of people, whether workers in ‘advanced’ capitalism or peasants or farmers in ‘developing’ countries. Companies like McDonalds have an enormous, and increasing, power over the livestock industry, a power they are now extending to the fruit-growers too. Many producers of fruit and vegetables are at the beck and call of the big supermarkets, forced to deliver the kind of bland homogenous pap that these claim their customers want but that in fact just provide bigger profits. And this mass-produced food is not even good for you: Britain has over four million reported cases of food poisoning a year, for instance.
Yet Tudge does not see the need for an alternative to capitalism. He regards the Russian dictatorship as having been the antithesis of capitalism (actually it was just another brand of capitalism), and naturally concludes that that was no solution. Instead he wants to replace the MICG version with ‘a different model of capitalism’, one which apparently will have all the features of the current model but none of the nasty side-effects. We need to be radical, he claims, but not revolutionary. But alas, his proposals are just wishful thinking within a profit-motivated system — as easily get an apple tree to grow rice as get capitalism to change its nature.
Tudge quotes a small farmer from the US as saying, ‘I just want to farm well. I don’t want to compete with anybody.’ This is a deceptively simple but very profound statement. Why should the work of producing food to keep people alive and satisfy their taste buds be a matter of cut-throat competition? Why, indeed, should life in general be a matter of competing with others and thereby being either a winner or a loser? Competition may be fine on the football field or the badminton court, but it is not the way to organise the production of food or anything else. People can work together — with each other and with the planet on which we all live — to make that work more pleasant and enjoyable and to produce things, including food, that people really want. But to achieve that will need a revolution in the way the world is organised.