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
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
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
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
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
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.
DAVID RAMSAY STEELE.
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.)