Socialists have always contended that the world could produce enough to feed every human being on the planet. This has been confirmed time and again by bodies such as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Health Organisation as well as by agronomists and other specialists in the field. So, why is the world price of wheat, rice and other agricultural products rising? Surely this shows that enough food can’t be produced? No, it doesn’t. What it shows is that food is not produced today to meet people’s needs but to be sold on a market with a view to profit.
World food prices are rising, and this does reflect the fact that paying demand is currently exceeding supplies. But this does not mean that enough food cannot be produced. It means simply that enough food has not been produced.
Various explanations have been offered for this imbalance between demand and supply. Extra demand resulting from the migration of millions of people from the countryside to the towns in places like China and India. Diversion of land to growing biofuels instead of food. Such explanations concentrate on why demand has increased. An article in the Times (26 June) by Ross Clark offers an explanation why not enough food has been produced.
Clark is a supporter of the market (who thinks that any opponent of the “free” market is a “Marxist”) and so expects that sooner or later food supplies will increase to satisfy the paying demand. No doubt it will (but this will still leave those who can’t pay either to starve or to have to rely on minimal hand-outs from charities and from the UN and other agencies). He argues that food production has fallen because in previous decades it had been overproduced. It is of course obscene to talk of “too much” food being produced when there are millions in the world who are starving, but he means “too much” in relation to paying demand. Even so, his explanation is still interesting in showing the irrational way in which the capitalist system works.
According to him:
“The reason for the fall in cereal production over 15 years has not been soil degradation or climate change: while crops yields are not increasing as fast as they were doing in the 1960s, they have still risen by 1-2 per cent per annum over the past 15 years. Rather, the decrease in production has been a straightforward response to overproduction. Remember the grain mountains of the 1980s? They resulted in a collapse in prices that in turn persuaded grain producers to contract their operation. Now that prices are rising again the opposite has happened: the FAO estimates that this year's wheat harvest will rise by 13 per cent as a result of extra planting, putting downward pressure on prices next year.”
He points out that today:
“the background to rising food prices is the shrinkage of global agriculture over the past decade and a half. Globally, less food is being produced on even less land than was the case in the early 1990s. Take the US, which according to the FAO was producing 1,210kg of cereals per person per year between 1990 and 1992 and 1,104 kg between 2001 and 2003. Or Canada, at one time the “world's bread basket”, where cereal production fell from 1,905 kg per person per year in 1990-92 to 1,384 kg in 2001-03.”
Given the current strong paying demand for food, the 1990s levels may well be reached again but, as we just said, this will satisfy only paying demand. What about those who can’t pay?
Though it is far from his intention, Clark provides information which shows that enough food could be produced to satisfy their food needs too. Of course it won’t be, and never will be, under the capitalist market system which he supports. But it could be in a socialist world where production would no longer be limited to what can be sold.
“the total landmass cultivated for arable crops in 2006, according Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), was 1.402 billion hectares - or 14 million sq km. In other words, all the world's cereals and vegetables are grown on an area equivalent to the USA and half of Canada. A further 34 million sq km - equivalent to the rest of North America, South America and two thirds of Australia - is given over to grazing, much of it extensive, unimproved grassland. The rest of the world - equivalent to the whole of Europe, Asia, Africa, Indonesia plus a third of Australia - is not used for food production in any way. Some of this land, of course, is desert, mountain or rainforest, which either cannot be used for agriculture at all or would require irrigation, engineering or clearance. But a vast amount of it could quite easily be converted into agriculture, but has until now not been needed.”
What does he mean “has not been needed”? Of course it’s been needed! What Clark means again is that it has not been needed to meet paying demand. We say that it is needed to end world hunger but will only be able to be used for this when once the resources of the Earth have become the common heritage of all humanity. That’s the only basis on which these currently unused resources can be used to meet the food needs of everyone, not just of those who can afford to pay.