Friday, 20 March 2009

Food Population and Development

I’ve just started re-reading an old collection of essays on Development Economics – “The Economics of Underdevelopment” by Agarwala and Singh. I came across an essay by Colin Clark“Population Growth and Living Standards”, which was originally published in the International Labour Review of August 1953. Although, the essay is more than 60 years old, it does contain some interesting observations.

One of the first myths he explodes is the idea of poverty, particularly food poverty being a result of overpopulation, or, more precisely, between the density of settlement and the value of agricultural output per head engaged in agriculture. For example, Britain and the Philippines had the same settlement density of around 5-10 people per square kilometre of cultivable land, but the value of Britain’s agricultural output was more than 5 times that of the Philippines - below 1,000 rupees per person in the Philippines, and between 4-5,000 in Britain.

He then took Denmark as a benchmark – because Denmark does not have particularly fertile soils or other advantages, and had at the time a reasonable level of food consumption – and calculated what percentage of the population needed to be engaged in agriculture to feed the population, and how much land was required, given the average conditions applying in Denmark. That calculation showed that 12.5% of the population needed to be engaged in agriculture, and 1 square kilometre of land would feed 200 people, or 1 square mile would feed around 500. As he demonstrates, on that basis, even allowing only for cultivable land, that is not ripping up the jungle or rainforests, or needing to cultivate the Sahara etc., there was, at that time, enough land, using the average techniques in Denmark, in 1953, enough land in the world to feed 12 billion people, or around six times the world’s population of the time! Not only that, but, looked at from this perspective, the places that should have had the most problem, were not the places that actually suffered from food poverty. The real problem was not excess population, but inadequate capital, to farm at the level of Denmark, for infrastructure etc.

As he points out the idea put forward by Malthus and by modern day Malthusians is shown to be completely wrong, because there has never been a time, and probably never will be a time, when population growth has exceeded the amount of food production that the world is capable of achieving. Even today, the world’s population is only half that 12 billion figure calculated for 1953, and with today’s technology having pushed up agricultural productivity way beyond what was possible in 1953, that 12 billion figure, for sustainable population, is more likely to be around 30 billion, or again around 5 times the actual world population. And, as Clark points out, there are common misconceptions about population and family sizes. He demonstrates that the average number of children per human family, where no attempt to restrict it is made, is around 6 children. That number comes from anthropological studies, and from biological and census studies. And as conditions improve, contrary to Malthus’s theory that family size tends to decrease.

There is one aspect of Malthus’ theory, however, which may be relevant. Malthus pointed out that one problem is that, with a high infant mortality rate, resources are expended on raising new labour power, which does not reach the age where it is actually productive. So resources are expended, which do not result in any corresponding increase in output. In effect, resources are going to unproductive consumption. As Marx, points out consumption by workers is not unproductive as it is by capitalists or other unproductive sections of the population, because the workers consumption produces labour power. It is productive consumption. But, that is not the case if the consumption does not lead to the production of labour power that in turn produces commodities. And unproductive consumption is a use of resources, which could have gone to capital accumulation, and represents thereby a reduction of potential growth. The obvious conclusion, here, is not that of the Malthusians, of trying to restrict population growth, but that one of the most effective ways of increasing productive potential is to improve health and living conditions, to reduce infant mortality, thereby ensuring that the resources taken up by those children actually leads to them becoming productive workers, and thereby increasing total output.  That is why developed capitalist economies create welfare states.

Moreover, we know from the Engel Curve that one result of such development will be that as output increases the demand for food increases at a slower rate than for other commodities as real income rises. That means that both labour and capital are created, which can increase production of those other commodities, thereby encouraging further development.

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