The market and the food crisis


Ed Lewis

In an article headed First signs of the coming famine, in the April 26-27 Weekend Australian, New York correspondent David Nason writes:

It’s 40 years since Stanford University entomologist Paul Ehrlich predicted that hundreds of millions of people would die of starvation in the 1970s and ’80s because the world could no longer produce enough food for its rapidly growing population.

Nason goes on to mention Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, a crude neo-Malthusian work that, as Nason says, “offered policy prescriptions ranging from compulsory birth control, cutting government payments for dependent children, applying a luxury tax to cribs and nappies, and ceasing food aid to the Third World”.

Nason doesn’t mention that since then, in 2004, Paul and Anne Ehrlich have written another book, One With Nineveh, with a rather different approach, although its focus is still the clash between population growth and the world’s resources.

In the introduction to One With Nineveh, the Ehrlichs turn from the harsh, fear-driven approach of The Population Bomb to a search for systemic solutions, and they quote favourably some recommendations of the 1993 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity:

  1. We must bring environmentally damaging activities under control to restore and protect the integrity of the earth’s systems we depend on. We must, for example, move away from fossil fuels to more benign, inexhaustible energy sources to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our air and water … We must halt deforestation, injury to and loss of agricultural land, and the loss of terrestrial and maring plant and animal species.
  2. We must manage resources crucial to human welfare more effectively.
  3. We must stabilise population. This will be possible only if all nations recognised that it requires improved social and economic conditions and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning.
  4. We must reduce and eventually eliminate poverty.
  5. We must ensure sexual equality, and guarantee women control over their reproductive decisions.

The later book also acknowledges that The Population Bomb‘s population projections were wrong:

“Rather than doubling and redoubling in the seventy years following publication of The Population Bomb in 1968, as once seemed likely, the global population may double (from 3.5 to 7 billion) in fifty-four years, by 2012. But a redoubling is nowhere in sight. As mentioned earlier, growth of the global population has slowed to about 1.2 per cent per year, and it appears on track to continue slowing for the next several decades, according to the United Nations’ medium demographic projection.”

The book then goes on to savage the US government’s sabotage of UN birth control programs, driven by fundamentalist Christian opposition to abortion.

It’s not surprising that Nason appears to prefer Ehrlich’s earlier book, since in the later one the world’s best-known neo-Malthusian of the late 1960s turns 30-odd years later into a rather severe critic of neoliberal capitalism and US imperialism, and strays rather far from the Malthusian raison d’etre, which is to blame the lower orders for creating their own misery and to prescribe war and famine as natural events to kill off excess population, and harsh domestic policies to restrict excessive breeding.

The title of the later book is taken from Rudyard Kipling’s Recessional, a warning to British Empire against imperial arrogance, and the Ehrlichs are clearly referring to today’s world empire, the US. (Of course, Kipling’s concern was to preserve the empire, so that Britons wouldn’t be cast back among the “lesser breeds”, and I presume the Recessional, with its blithe references to “heathen hearts”, etc, is no longer sung in school assemblies, as it still was when I went to school.)

Nason’s reference to The Population Bomb is the second I’ve come across in recent weeks, the other being an article in the Sydney Morning Herald in which Sydney University historian Anne Bashford blunders from one stupidity to the next and ends up rambling about eugenics, which like Kipling is also a product of imperial Britain, arising out of one Francis Galton’s investigations of individual genius and running in a direct line to genocidal policies against indigenous Australians, not to mention Nazi racial theories and their consequences. Bashford also seems more comfortable with The Population Bomb than with Ehrlich’s later views.

Unlike Ehrlich, Nason goes on to suggest that The Population Bomb wasn’t wrong, just a bit premature:

Not surprisingly, Ehrlich was branded a crackpot and his basic premise that a terrible age of famine was at hand never eventuated. In fact, there was less famine in the last quarter of the 20th century than at any time in history, the result of world food production growing at 15 per cent annually and outstripping the growth in population.

The famines that did occur arose from natural catastrophes or the interruption of food supply and cultivation in war zones.
But today, with the cost of staples such as rice, corn, wheat and soybeans skyrocketing, with food riots breaking out across the globe and with the UN’s World Food Program warning of a “silent tsunami” of hunger threatening the lives of 20 million of the world’s poorest children, galloping food inflation is raising Ehrlich-like fears of a world where famine is no longer confined to war zones and sub-Saharan Africa.

The strange thing is that the rest of Nason’s article doesn’t bear out his introduction. He points to numerous examples of the problems caused by rising food prices, most of them market-driven, rather than caused by a global food shortgage. The exceptions to market-driven causes are drought in Russia and Australia. Even then, if Nason had done his research, the drop in rice production in Australia is due only partly to drought. A market-driven cause is the fact that irrigation farmers can get a higher price for wine grapes than for rice, and water licences have been widely bought up by grape growers.

The main problems Nason cites are market-driven, not a sudden exhaustion of the world’s capacity to produce food for a growing population. Much of the problem arises from dramatic rises in the prices of oil and fertiliser prices and a switch in some places, particularly Brazil and the US, to growing crops for ethanol rather than food.

There is no world food shortage, there is a dysfunctional market based on the long-failed 19th century theories of laissez faire capitalism, revived as neoliberalism, but as food riots and other social breakdowns spread due to the failures of this market system we can expect more attempts to revive the discredited The Population Bomb, which even its author no longer supports.

See also:

Corporate vultures lurk behind the world food crisis

Food riots erupt worldwide

Fuelling hunger


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5 Responses to “The market and the food crisis”

  1. DavidG. Says:

    Good to see this blog getting started. How well it’ll travel remains to be seen given the number of blogs in the world.

    Good luck.

  2. Linke Presse- und Webseitenschau « Entdinglichung Says:

    […] Ein weiterer neuer lesenswerter Blog: The Ecosocialist, hier findet mensch u.a. den Artikel The market and the food crisis von Ed […]

  3. Terry Townsend Says:

    Adding insult to injury: Bush says starving India eats too much

    By Kavita Krishnan

    May 7, 2008 — Karl Marx, born on 5 May, 1818, nearly two centuries ago, had in 1867 laid bare the “intimate connection between the pangs of hunger of the most industrious layers of the working class, and the extravagant consumption, coarse or refined, of the rich, for which capitalist accumulation is the basis” (Capital Vol. 1, Ch. 25). In May 2008, nearly a century and a half later, as we hear Emperor Bush hold forth on global hunger, we are reminded that capitalism and global wealth remains just as intimately wedded to hunger.

  4. Terry Townsend Says:

    Another plug …

    A clip from the BBC’s Around the World in 80 Gardens (2008) introduces the urban organic food gardening revolution in Havana, Cuba. Also a three-part talk by Cuban permaculturist Roberto Perez that delves deeper into Cuba’s green revolution, and an interview with the makers of The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, the film in which Perez featured.

  5. Stephen Darley Says:

    This is an excerpt form Ehrlich’s “Population Bomb” which I use in teaching to point out the direction the neo-Malthusians take us.

    “In Famine 1975! The Paddocks suggest a policy based on the concept of ‘triages’ borrowed from military medicine. …………

    The Paddocks suggest that a similar system be devised for classifying nations. Some will undergo the transition to self-sufficiency without drastic aid from outside. They will be ones with abundant money for foreign purchases, or with efficient governments, strong population control programmes, and strong agricultural development programmes. Although aid might help them, they could get along without it. Some nations, on the other hand may become self-sufficient if the US gave them some food to tide them over. Finally there is the last tragic category: those countries so far behind in the population food game that there is no hope that food aid will see them through to self-sufficiency.

    The Paddocks feel that limited assistance should go to those whom it would save, not to those who can survive without it or those who can’t be saved in any case. Their views have not, to say the least, been greeted with enthusiasm by foreign governments, by those in the US government whose jobs depend on the willy nilly spreading of American largesse abroad, or by the assorted do-gooders who are deeply involved in the apparatus of international food charity. Criticism from some of those groups, is a compliment.

    In my opinion, there is no rational choice except to adopt some form of Paddocks’ strategy, at least as far as good distribution during famine is concerned. They deserve immense credit for their courage and foresight in publishing Famine 1975!, which may be remembered as one of the most important books of our age. &mdash Paul Erlich, The Population Bomb, pp. 156-157”

    But it’s easy to see why this version of Ehrlich is preferred to the 21st century one, the same class-based reason Marx pointed out re Malthus, but on a global scale: the bite-back to anti-imperialist attacks on the US and western powers in general. And it has a dog-whistle-type appeal : “… the problem cetrainly isn’t me, and it surely isn’t you — so it must be THEM — those different sort of people over there are to blame, and now they want to come here and take our food and lifestyle away, and blame us for the mess they have left thier own countries in …”

    This kind of proto-fascist line will be preached in growing intensity as climate-change refugees start to be generated in larger and larger numbers — especially when coupled with US-originated recession.

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