Feast and Famine
March 4, 2007
by William P. Meyers

Often information that was true in the past lingers on in culture long after new information has come to light. Books stay on shelves, memes keep circulating. One thought I still hear in leftist circles is that there is plenty of food and other stuff around, what is missing is a system of distribution so that every person can have food, clothing, and shelter. Maybe even an MP3 player. Some lefties manage to maintain a particular mental paradox: capitalism is not responsible for producing all that stuff, but it is responsible for the mal-distribution of it.

It has been years since this old truism has been true about food. The problem is no longer that there is more than enough to go around, but some people cannot afford to buy it. The problem now is that there is not enough, or at best barely enough, to go around. The era of surplus food has come to an end.

One way to detect hard-core famine, as opposed to maldistribution, is to do the dollar test: if someone has a dollar, but can't trade it for something to eat, they are in a famine. Of course people may be hungry even in the midst of plenty. There is a spectrum from that situation to the can't-buy-food-at-any-price famines that the world has not seen since World War II. Oddly famines over the past few decades have struck agricultural communities the hardest. When a drought destroys an area's crops, the farmers not only have no food; they have no money to buy food, because the only way they can get money is by selling food.

China and India, which have the two largest populations in the world (China: 1.3 billion. India: 1.1 billion), have both done good jobs since World War II in terms of feeding their peoples. Mao Zedong and communism are often blamed for some famines in China, but far worse famines had to be endured by the Chinese people in pre-communist times. Today food is not listed among the major imports of either India or China. In fact I have heard U.S. farmers complain about Chinese competition in crops like apples and garlic, so China is actually exporting some food. Keep in mind that about half of China's population still work on farms. Short-term regional droughts have been dealt with successfully in China. But what would happen in a long-term, nationwide agricultural disaster (which could be from fungus or pests as well as drought)? China has a lot of money, it could buy a lot of food on the international markets.

But there is not that much food on the international markets anymore. The United States of America used to be a major food exporter. But our population has grown to 300 million. In 2006 the value of food exports from the United States was slightly less than the value of food imports at about $58 billion.

There are countries that export a lot of food, notably Australia, Brazil, and Canada. But their own populations are growing rapidly, and they are balanced by nations that are heavily dependent on imported food like Great Britain, Japan, and Bangladesh, plus whatever sub-saharan African nations are having drought troubles at any given moment.

Almost all of this agricultural activity is now heavily dependent on petroleum for fertilizer, planting, harvest, and distribution. Hence rising prices in US supermarkets.

Some scientists are intent on growing more food. But the last 50 years have already seen new variety introductions that have come close to maximizing how much food you can get from a given amount of land and sunshine. Ethanol production is now competing for corn and sugar supplies, driving up the cost of corn and even making corn-growing agricultural land in the US more valuable.

The U.S. government has spent trillions of dollars on national defense and the war against terrorism, but has created no significant stockpiles of food. The United States has a diversity of climates and crops. Like China we are unlikely to lose two major food crops in the same year, much less for several years running. But like China if we lose even one crop we will have to buy food on international markets, which are not as resilient as they once were.

And if China and the United States are ever trying to buy massive amounts of food at the same time, do not think that the politicians of this country won't try a military solution.

The real solution? Population control. See my essays on Population.

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