Monday, February 06, 2017

Blast from the Past: Food explosion (1968)

 There is too much food in the world. Far too much. And the surplus is growing at a terrifying, uncontrollable rate.

 Governments try to tackle this crisis by all sorts of restrictions on agricultural output – the most famous of which is the American practice of paying farmers to leave their land uncultivated:

 Areas to be cultivated for particular purposes are fixed farm by farm, and are subject to inspection by officials who have grown increasingly anxious, as surpluses have mounted, to check on anyone who is inclined to cheat. On occasion the inspection has taken on features of a military exercise, with the government men engaging in surprise aerial reconnaissance over suspicious fields of corn. Even so, the great flood of produce coming off American farms has not been checked.

 In other words, even though the farmers are restricted in the acreage they can cultivate, the problem of excess food still gets worse, because they manage to produce more and more from a smaller and smaller amount of land.

 When other means fail, the last resort is destruction. Fields of sugar cane are burnt, baby pigs slaughtered by the million, milk poured down mine shafts, wheat tipped into the sea. Crops are ploughed back into the ground, and fruit left to rot on the trees.

 Remember that publicity campaign to keep the Biafran children alive until Christmas was over? Well, just up the road from Biafra, in the Ivory Coast, they were systematically destroying 100,000 tons of coffee. And in Europe, two immense (but by now familiar) crises were coming to a head: the French fruit glut (an annual affair), and the Common Market butter problem.

 In France over half a million tons of fruit and vegetables had to be destroyed. Fruit was tipped.on to the roads by the lorryload, and tourists having to drive through this sticky mush were handed free gifts of peaches, together with protest leaflets. Grapes were dumped into rivers, abandoned at the roadside, and occasionally thrown by frustrated farmers at government buildings.

 As for the Common Market's dairy problems, the Financial Times commented: 'the butter surplus seems to be a problem almost beyond the wit of man to solve'. What could the EEC farm bosses do about their 350,000 tons excess butter? They thought of feeding it back to the cows, but that would cause the cows to supply more milk, resulting in a worse situation. Even as things stand, next year's dairy surplus is expected to be more disastrous than ever (ie: bigger). They thought of getting rid of the stuff at half- price, but people in Europe are already eating enough butter, and couldn't consume much more, even if it was that cheap.

 They thought of turning the butter into something that couldn't spread, then presenting it as some new product and trying to sell it that way. They still haven't sorted the problem out, and sooner or later they will almost certainly be forced to slaughter a lot of dairy cows - probably four million out of the Common Market's 22 million.

 Of course, we all know that there are quite a few hungry people in the world, and for this reason talk of 'too much' food being a 'problem' seems ludicrous and bizarre. Those who admire Black Comedy can be recommended to read almost any material on agricultural economics. It is usually wildly hilarious, to a degree only possible with an undertone of stark horror Picking on a couple of standard economics textbooks at random, I find the following gems:

'Unfortunately, with the help of fertilizers, modern chemicals and irrigation, some farmers managed to maintain their normal output on reduced acreage and receive the federal payment too.'

It's the 'Unfortunately' that kills you.

(The restrictive Agriculture Acts of the early thirties were) 'merely interim measures until the bounty of nature again became an embarrassment.'

A beautifully coy way of putting it.

 Quotes such as these are beyond the imaginative powers of a Kafka. Capitalism's insanity is so systematic, and such an everyday thing, that it is impossible to satirize. It is its own caricature. My favourite quote of the lot is from a 1958 Press Release of the Food and Agriculture Organization. Here, the problem of too much food is described as though it were a dangerous epidemic, a Black Death sweeping over the world:

'The 30th session. of the Committee on Commodity Problems ended yesterday after almost two weeks of discussions on what it termed a grave situation for international commerce in agricultural products.
The discussions of the 24-member committee have stressed the concern of delegates at the deterioration of the world agricultural economy. Accumulation of surpluses, contraction of international markets, the fall of world prices for most products and the slowing down of general economic activity were the chief factors involved. It was also noted that the chronic presence of surpluses had spread to new products and additional countries. The outlook was rather dark, and the attention of governments was drawn to the urgent need for measures to alleviate the situation. .. .At the same time it was recognized that from now on the problem of surpluses should be considered as a permanent characteristic of the world agricultural economy.'

 If there is too much food, if there is a volcano of plenty threatening to engulf humanity, it would seem to follow that the thing to save the situation would be a colossal natural (or unnatural) catastrophe. And this is in fact the case. The present system of society, choking in its own abundance, would be perked up no end by a world-wide series of super-earthquakes, or some disastrous fallout of nuclear pollution. Anything that destroyed men, machines and materials in a really big way would provide a welcome shot in the arm. You cannot sell something unless it's scarce.

 As a matter of fact, that isn't as fanciful as it sounds. The big American drought of 1934 was a tremendous boon, reducing the wheat crop more effectively than any government action, and letting Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace off the hook. It was reported that he:

'breathed a sigh of relief; it would not be necessary to write about the logic of ploughing up wheat while millions lacked bread'

That, of course, took place during a depression. 'Overproduction' has always been a feature of slumps. What is new about the modern overproduction of food is that it is permanent, chronic, continuing through boom and slump alike. In 1847 Marx and Engels described the crises of plenty as follows:

'In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that in all earlier epochs would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence: industry and commerce seem to be destroyed, and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. . .And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.'

 The reason for today's permanent surplus of food in all the advanced countries is rather different. If governments stopped interfering in agriculture, food prices would dive and farmers would be going broke all over the place. Farming would become a permanently depressed sector (as it was in America during the twenties boom). Men, machines and land would move out of agriculture into other uses. This would keep on until food prices rose again to a profitable level. Governments are not prepared to let this happen, for various reasons, so they 'support' the farmers and prevent food prices from falling.

 This sort of policy can have laughable consequences on a world sale. Thus, European governments subsidize the growing of sugar beet. At the moment the Common Market has a big headache with its million ton sugar surplus, whilst in Cuba they've just introduced sugar rationing.

 I suppose there will be someone innocent enough to ask: 'How can there possibly be too much food in the world, when so many people are starving?' Such a person has not yet realized that in a buying and selling world, a world which produces for the sake of cash, human needs can go and get stuffed. Money talks;  hunger is dumb. People are starving alright because there isn't any food for ; they've got no money to buy it. In other words, 'too much' means 'too much for a profitable market' not too much for human needs.

 Actually, starvation isn't as widespread as a lot of people think. Those who put it about that there is some sort of 'overpopulation problem' still bring up the old myth that 'two-thirds of the world are underfed.' It would be truer to say that two-thirds of the world suffer from malnutrition one-third from under-eating, one-third from over-eating.

 The idiocy of the money system is illustrated by what happened when America decided to give some of its surplus wheat away to India. This is just the sort of thing some woolly-minded Humanists advocate. The effect was, of course, to hinder the development of Indian agriculture, and also to keep out exports of rice from Burma and wheat from Argentine, aggravating hardship in both these countries. Ironically, both Burma and Argentine get American aid. When surplus American corn was handed out in Israel, this cut the price of Israeli eggs (Hens eat corn). Israeli eggs v/ere exported at prices so low that the European egg market was upset. Giving things away, within a buying and selling system, doesn't work.

 In a Moneyless World there would be no difficulty about improving farming in backward areas, and transporting food out to them at the same time, but under Capitalism these two obviously sensible actions are in direct conflict with each other.

 Similarly, I suppose most people are now aware that there's a certain amount of starvation in the USA, the richest nation in the world's history The Observer mentioned this last August, and incidentally gave us another gem for our collection of Real Life Sick Gag: a Senator James Eastland opposes welfare hand outs which he calls 'giving something for nothing' , whilst he gets £1,000 a week from the government for not growing cotton on his plantation.

 Why can't the US government simply open its granaries to the poor of America? Because even the poor, if they eat at all, pay for what they eat, and if they get their food free, they will no longer spend money on food, so the price of food will tumble down and the farmers will be hit. You can't operate bits of sanity inside au insane system.


Sources: Andrew Shonfield, Modern Capitalism, The Times, 30.11.68; The Scotsman, 16.8.68; 30.10.68; Guardian, 19.10.68; P d' A Jones, The Consumer Society; A J Brown, The American Economy; FAO Release, quoted in: Proceedings of the International Conference of Agricultural Economists, 1958; G N Peek, Why Quit Our Own, quoted in: Brown, The American Economy; K. Marx and F Engels, The Communist Manifesto; C. Clark, Population Growth And Land Use; R Bailey, Problems of the World Economy; Observer, 18.8.68.

(From the satirical magazine OZ, number 19.)