Can Food Supply Keep Pace With Population Growth
JANUARY 01, 1967 by KARL BRANDT
Dr. Brandt was a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, 19581961, and is the author of many books and articles on economic and agricultural policy issues. This article is from a statement presented by Dr. Karl Brandt, Senior Research Fellow, Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford University, at the Fiftieth Anniversary Conference on Planned Parenthood and World Population on October 18, 1966 at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City.
Many practical, logical, ethical, and moral arguments can legitimately be advanced in support of more responsible use of man’s power of procreation through planned parenthood by voluntary individual decision. However, I reject as illegitimate and invalid the argument that the accelerating pace of population growth is overtaking the rate of growth of food production and that therefore disastrous famine of abhorrent proportions is almost inevitable unless population growth is throttled.
As I shall prove, the famine projections are neither a sound nor a legitimate argument for population control because the world’s existing agricultural capacity gives abundant leeway to produce adequate food supplies for the growing population. Therefore, using famine alarm to justify support of government action toward birth control can only weaken the initiative to promote recognition of the importance of responsible parenthood.
I also believe that even if worldwide famine were, indeed, an otherwise inescapable imminent calamity, it could not be avoided by planned parenthood because this complex cultural change in mores and modes of living does not lend itself to successful progress by a crash program but requires, on the contrary, a steady long pull.
Furthermore, by offering the false hope of quick relief of allegedly imminent food shortage through a planned parenthood crash program, this argument evades the real issue. All governments have the duty to adopt and administer policies which give farmers the freedom and incentive to expand food production. If governments of developing countries accept such responsibility, they will accomplish what planned parenthood cannot do.
Finally, global generalization about the extremely diverse dynamics of food supplies distorts the facts. In recent years some of the most densely populated areas of the world have increased food production beyond all expectations and against the worst odds.
The judgment that famine is unavoidable is demonstrably false —so far as the availability of all needed resources and the feasibility of their use are concerned. The Director General of the FAO, B. R. Sen, and all agricultural experts agree on this.
Food Potential Unlimited
Since the end of World War II the world’s technically and economically feasible food production potential has expanded at more than geometrical rate. This is the result of a combination of factors which Malthus, Ricardo, Justus von Liebig, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Gregor Mendel, Alfred Marshall, Pigou, Walras, Keynes, Henry Wallace, or even Lord Orr in 1944, could not have anticipated.
In spite of disastrously false projections of the 1930′s and 40′s, what has ultimately expanded the growth of the world’s food production capacity beyond all boundaries is the most recent emergence of overabundant sources of energy like water, wind, or tidal power, coal, lignite, petroleum, oilshale, natural gas, uranium, plutonium. Combined with diminishing costs of pipeline transportation of minerals, liquids, and gases across whole continents, this overabundance has made energy in any desired quantity available anywhere in the world — in remote agricultural regions as well as metropolitan areas — at declining costs.
Overabundance of energy has opened the gates to replace human and- animal power by mechanical power — in horticulture, livestock farming, orcharding, grazing, fisheries, and forestry. The replacement of beasts of burden and draft animals sets free for food production the land needed to feed them. (One working horse consumes the food of 8 to 12 people.)
Agriculture is the world’s greatest transport industry. It moves implements up to 35 times a year over every square foot of 350 million acres in the U.S. The combustion engine, particularly the Diesel engine, made tractors, trucks, and automobiles available to farms. But the development of smaller and smaller 2-cycle engines and the availability of liquid fuel at declining costs has given small farmers motor scooters, motor tricycles, small trucks, and rototillers, multiplying the productivity of farm labor.
Abundance of Nitrogen
Overabundance of energy has made the most crucial and scarcest of all plant and animal nutrients, nitrogen, potentially abundant everywhere in the world at declining costs. One ton of pure N mined from the air requires the energy equivalent of 4 to 5 tons of bituminous coal. Used properly as fertilizer for crops one ton of pure N will yield from 15 to 20 tons of grain equivalent, provided the necessary moisture is or can be made seasonally available or its excess drained off. Farmers can mine nitrogen from the air by leguminous green manure plants. Factories can mine nitrogen fertilizer wherever energy is available in any form. Such fertilizer factories are increasing in number. Where they are missing, international and national farm supply trade will bring nitrogen fertilizer to farmers at even lower prices.
Moisture, another crop production factor in seasonally or annually limited supply, has now also become available in many areas at declining costs by the new abundance of energy, by little 2-cycle engine-driven irrigation pumps, and aluminum sprinkler pipes. Since they are mutually interdependent, less expensive and abundant plant nutrients and irrigation water are jacking up the population-carrying potential of land. The same small pump and pipe units drain swamps and open wet land in humid climates to intensive cultivation.
While decreasing costs of nitrogen and of irrigation water make it a paying proposition to increase the yields of crops, the petrochemical industries also provide powerful means to curtail the high losses of food in the field and in storage. Highly effective weedkillers eliminate brush and a flora of voracious thieves of precious plant nutrients and moisture. Pesticides destroy predators, wild ruminants, birds, rats, mice, and other rodents, and control insect pests and bacterial or fungus diseases.
The overabundance of energy, the automation of loading and unloading of food commodities in bulk, the increased size of oceangoing vessels, the perfection of storing staples and preserving perishables have revolutionized the mobility of agricultural production factors, as well as of agricultural products. Hence the international exchange of farm needs, such as engine fuel, fertilizer, feed, pesticides, machinery and implements, and of farm products involves less time and less cost per unit than ever before — unless governments prevent their citizens from benefiting from this.
Knowledge about the entire up-to-date technology of food production, processing, and distribution is available in any part of the world, free of charge wherever nations are willing to get and use it. Moreover, nearly all countries have within their own boundaries modern, up-to-date, large-scale agricultural enterprises which are geared to the domestic as well as the world market.
Needed: Freedom to Improve
Irrespective of its degree of literacy, the agricultural population of technically retarded countries is capable of applying better techniques wherever the market grants it freedom to improve. If new production factors become available at remunerative prices and if prices of farm products offer an incentive, farm people will increase production, provided there is a reasonable degree of security and stability of income and savings.
If famine should occur, neither scarcity of natural or man-made resources nor the rate of population growth offer valid excuses. Even natural calamities like drought, floods, or pests do not necessarily cause famine in any properly organized society.
If famine should occur in some countries — as it well may — it will be primarily "government made" by policies similar to those that initially resulted in the starvation of 5 million people and have prevented for nearly 40 years any proper expansion of food production in Soviet Russia and have cost uncounted millions of lives in Red China. Such policies squeeze a major part of the capital for industrialization out of farm income by the wide-open scissors of high prices for all manufactured goods and low prices for farm products.
In too many agrarian countries, radical industrial protectionism exploits farmers by raising to prohibitive levels the prices of farmers’ needs (including high-grade seed, fertilizer, pesticides, fuel, machinery, and spare parts) and by fixing food prices in industrial cities at the expense of the farmers for political rather than economic reasons. (The Japanese farmer buys 1 pound of nitrogen fertilizer with 1 1/3 pounds of rice. A farmer in India who wants to buy it has to pay the outrageous price of 5 pounds of rice.) The government’s discrimination against private suppliers of production credit and the trade in farm commodities stymies farm production by bureaucratic red tape. Currency inflation caused by reckless public deficit spending creates additional insecurity and dries up investment capital for agriculture, while leaving no funds for commercial imports to close the widening food deficit.
Policies prone to contribute to "government-made famine" in many countries also include incessant propaganda for "agrarian reform" with neither a definition of precise measures to be taken nor a time table for the beginning and end of such "reform." The general assumption of the wealthy and the poor alike that it will amount to confiscation of property in land and farm inventories destroys confidence in any capital investment in agriculture. The threat of agrarian reform creates such insecurity that all parties concerned convert their assets into liquid form. The result is general capital flight from agriculture, which inevitably further diminishes farm production.
Curbing Population May Also Interfere with Production
Many Latin American and African countries have enormous unused land resources for food, feed, and fibers, and their development will require more farm people. It makes no sense to generalize and say that population growth must be stopped.
The warm heart of the American people endorses enormous gifts of food to countries like India, where 83 per cent of the people — or 400 million — live as farmers or craftsmen in villages. But, most regrettably, such generosity has the detrimental effect of contributing unwittingly to the prospect of real famine there while weakening the U.S. dollar. Such gifts allow the Indian government further leeway to continue ill-advised policies which suffocate in bureaucratic red tape the initiative of their farmers, their wholesale and retail food trade, and their auxiliary farm supply trade. Those absentee bureaucracies at federal and state levels sit tight on an enormously long end of the seesaw. The order of magnitude of food deficits they continue to create is so enormous that with all charity and foreign aid we and the other industrial nations cannot possibly compensate for them.
If we really want to prevent famine, we had better use a cool head in dealing with governments that press us for food relief — and assume a hard trading stance on behalf of their majority of farm people. The American people have a keen interest in getting valid assurances that "birth control" is applied effectively to mice, rats, birds, locusts, and a score of other pests and that they are not permitted to devour the indigenous food faster than American "Food for Peace" can be shipped in at very high expense. Beyond that we should use our warm hearts when, by privately administered charity, we can reach the invalid, the sick, the orphans, and the hungriest among the poor.