Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Capital III, Chapter 43 - Part 6

But, this process, described in previous parts, is far from reaching its limits. On the one hand, Differential Rent I continues to be affected by the introduction of new, more fertile lands. Not only have vast swathes of highly fertile land been brought into cultivation in the Amazon, and other parts of South America, but huge new farms are being developed in Africa, on virgin soil, which, despite their mammoth scale barely touch the potential for further development.

And the continued rapid development of science and technology similarly impacts Differential Rent II. Colin Clark's article – “Population Growth and Living Standards”, which was originally published in the International Labour Review of August 1953 demonstrated that even with the technology available at that time, it was possible to increase global food production to way beyond what was required to feed the world's population, even using only the land that was then in cultivation.

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 one square kilometre of land would feed 200 people, or one 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 rain forests, or needing to cultivate the Sahara etc., there was, at that time, using the average techniques in Denmark in 1953, enough land in the world to feed 12 billion people or around 6 times the world’s population of the time! Not only that, but looked at from this perspective the places, which 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. 

For example, new types of crop, and the use of new techniques mean that where one crop was previously only possible per year, today two or even three crops can be harvested during the year. The FT reported a while ago,

“Using new varieties of seeds that have allowed them to shorten soya and corn crop cycles, Brazilian farmers in the country’s centre-west savannah areas have moved from planting one crop to incorporating the second, the safrinha. In some areas where irrigation is available they are even contemplating a third harvest.

The corn crop has benefited most from the safrinha. In the 2012-13 year, corn output is expected to total nearly 80m tonnes, up from about 56mt in 2011. Soyabeans, meanwhile, are estimated at more than 80mt compared with about 75mt in 2011.” 

In addition, we have global farming corporations to provide year round crops, GM crops to enhance output, and protect against pests, and diseases, and the introduction of multi-story buildings so that food can be grown on a much smaller land footprint, as well as the development of hydroponics.

Its no wonder then that 200 years after Malthus dire predictions and Ricardo's belief that diminishing returns to the land would cause a falling rate of profit, the opposite is seen. We have more, better and cheaper food than ever before. In many countries, there is indeed more food available at low prices than is good for the inhabitants, leading to waste, obesity and ill-health.

The problem of under nourishment around the globe is not a consequence of insufficient food production, but as with all forms of underconsumption, an unequal distribution of wealth and income. The world's poor do not eat because because they do not have enough income to buy food, not because there is not enough food.

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