November 19, 2017

The fallacy of triage

The Environmental Fund provides a fairly realistic assessment of the widening gap between population and food supply. I have only one quarrel with it; that is on the subject of Triage, a principle which the fund, implicitly adopts. For those who do not know what Triage means, let me explain. There is clearly no point in providing aid to people who are in such a bad way that they will not survive regardless of the aid being given to them. Nor is there any point in wasting aid on people who do not use it. If the limited amount of aid available is to be used with maximum efficiency, it must be provided to those whose survival depends on it. Those who advocate triage point out that many countries have simply “had it”. In India, for instance, there are already 600 million people and by the end of the century there will probably be a billion. People are already starving in some of the poorer areas such as Bihar. The best thing is to forget about India, and concentrate on other countries.

The normal reaction to such a suggestion is that it is callous and inhuman. This is not my reaction. My objection to it is that it is based on the presupposition that foreign aid can actually help anybody but the donors.

Karl Polanyi described, forty years ago, what were the dramatic effects of the development of a market economy in Europe in the thirteenth century. Among them was that for the first time people had to buy their food. It meant that whether they ate or starved no longer simply depended on the vagaries of the climate but now also on the even less predictable ones of the market.

As Polanyi pointed out, the great famines of India during the British Raj were mainly due to the operation of market forces. There had always been crop failures, but these were largely catered for, as farmers would conserve sufficient stocks, either in their homes or at a village level. In a market economy, their grain was sold to the merchants and was stocked in the city. When there was a crop failure, they were forced to buy it back—at an inflated price and, what is more, with a greatly reduced income; hence the extraordinary spectacle of a famine in the countryside and not in the cities.

The situation today is far worse, for the market is no longer a provincial one—nor even a national one; it is global. What is more, the ratio of food exporters to food importers is constantly falling.

Table 1: The Changing Pattern of World Grain Trade

Region 1934-38 1948-52 1960 1970 1976
  (Million Metric Tons)    
North America +5 +23 +39 +56 +94
Latin America +9 +1 0 +4 -3
Western Europe -24 -22 -25 -30 -17
E. Europe & USSR +5 0 0 -27
Africa +1 0 -2 -5 -10
Asia +2 -6 -17 -37 -47
Australia & N.Z. +3 +3 +6 +12 +8

Source: Derived from FAO and USDA data and Lester Brown’s Estimates.

As can be seen from Table 1, before the war, North America, Latin America, Eastern Europe, the U.S.S.R., Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand were net grain exporters. Today all these areas except North America, Australia and New Zealand have become importers and the amount they are importing is increasing very dramatically. To make up for this, North American exports have increased from 5 million to 94 million tons, more than doubling within a single decade. Its exports are sufficient to feed six hundred million people—or the entire population of India. As a result of these trends, North America today finds itself with an almost monopolistic control of the world’s exportable grain supplies, a situation for which there is no historical precedent.

This dependence can only increase. As Johnson1 points out, the dumping of food at concessionary prices so depresses a farm economy that if food aid in this form were to continue for long, the recipient country would almost certainly become dependent on this aid perpetually.

Lester Brown2 does not consider that the governments of the U.S. and Canada have consciously sought these responsibilities, “any more than the countries of the Middle East have planned their geographical location astride the world’s richest oil fields; but they must reckon with it nevertheless.” This is not the point of view of the Chinese who, during the Food Conference in Rome, accused the U.S.A. of “dumping large quantities of its surplus food into the developing countries, turning some traditional food exporting countries into food importing ones, and forcing more and more countries to live on food imports.”3

What is certain is that, throughout the world, whether people eat or starve will increasingly depend not only on the vagaries of climate, not only on the vagaries of the world market, but on the economic interests of a single country: the United States of America. What then are these interests?

First of all, there is good reason to suppose, as is suggested by Gale Johnson, that aid would not have played such an important role in alleviating the Indian famine in 1966, if it were not for the fact that the main agricultural problem of the sixties was how to get rid of food surpluses. Let us not forget that during this period American farmers were paid not to produce food and that by 1972, fifty million acres of good American farm land had been taken totally out of production. Also at the same time, food stocks were piling up, more than in fact could be stocked. Aid was an obvious outlet and was actually being pressed on those who did not necessarily require it.

As Johnson writes,

“a recipient country at times found itself being courted by more than one willing donor. During the early 1960s it should not have been surprising that a kind of euphoria developed in some of the recipient countries based on the expectation that whenever the need might arise food aid would be forthcoming.”1

Since then the situation has changed very dramatically. A growing population and rising affluence have caused a massive increase in demand for cereals, while more and more countries have entered the world food market as buyers, in particular the Soviet Union whose highly bureaucratised agricultural system is constantly failing to deliver the goods. At the same time, there is another development of equal importance and that is that the U.S. has been exhausting its own supplies of oil and mineral resources in general and, as is evident from Table 2, is becoming increasingly dependent on imports from abroad.

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Table 2: U.S. Dependence on Imports of Principal Industrial Raw Materials with Projections to 2000

Raw Material 1950 1970 1985 2000
    (per cent imported)  
Aluminium 64 85 96 98
Chromium n.a. 100 100 100
Copper 31 0 34 56
Iron 8 30 55 67
Lead 39 31 62 67
Manganese 88 95 100 100
Nickel 94 90 88 89
Phosphorus 8 0 0 2
Potassium 14 42 47 52
Sulphur 2 0 28 52
Tin 77 n.a. 100 100
Tungsten n.a. 50 87 97
Zinc 38 59 72 84

Source: Data are derived from U.S. Department of the Interior publications.

What is more, the foreign exchange it requires for financing these imports must come principally from the sale of its agricultural produce, which at present nets something like twenty billion dollars a year. What are the implications? At the moment 85 per cent of the cereals grown in the U.S. that are not consumed locally are sold and 5 per cent are given in the form of aid. The tendency, however, is for the amount of aid to be reduced in favour of increased sales. There has already been a 40 per cent drop in the last two years. As was made apparent at the Rome Conference, the U.S. does not intend to reverse this tendency. The truth is it cannot afford to. Food is likely to go increasingly to those who can afford to pay for it.

There is still another factor to be taken into account. The U.S. will not only use its new monopolistic powers for economic purposes, but also for political ones. Already, as was pointed out in Rome,

“half of America’s food aid in 1974 went to Cambodia, South Vietnam, Laos, Israel, Jordan and Malta, and some was magically transformed into weapons before it could be consumed. Israel received more food aid in 1973 than needy Bangladesh, whose population is over seventy million.”3

Recently President Ford formed a ‘Special Food Group’4 which included the Secretaries of State for the Treasury, for Labour and for Agriculture, and representatives from the Council of Economic Affairs and the National Security Council. This made it fairly clear that Earl Butz, the Secretary of State for Agriculture, is no longer in charge of food decisions. As Lester Brown says, “food is simply too important a resource in the world today to consider it a narrow agricultural issue.”4 Thus, to the vagaries of the climate, of the market and of American economic interest, must be added those of the American political scene.

But there is another set of factors, which we might refer to as ecological ones. American agriculture is very vulnerable. Not only do the endless stretches of monoculture in Iowa and Idaho provide a perfect niche for exploding pest populations, but the very reduced genetic basis of the major crops makes them highly vulnerable to plant disease. In 1970, the U.S. lost one sixth of its maize crop in an epidemic of Southern Corn Leaf Blight. A recent report of the National Academy of Science suggests that it is only a question of time before a plant disease effectively destroys a major part of the U.S. harvest of some major crop.5

In addition it appears that the U.S. is now reaching a point where it is experiencing diminishing returns on the particular chemical inputs needed by its highly intensive agricultural system. Since the cost of these inputs has sky rocketed (fertilizer has more than quadrupled in price) diminishing returns on capital expended on these inputs is still very appreciable. The point is actually now being reached where, as is pointed out by the Centre for Biology on Natural Systems,6 it is rapidly becoming more economic to do without the inputs, which reduces costs and which increasingly compensates for the lower income resulting from slightly reduced yields. The significance of this to the recipients of food aid, and also for those who have become dependent on food imports, is that American agriculture is likely to become less intensive in the years to come, and that yields are likely to fall rather than rise as they have been doing over the last decades.

But this is not all. The U.S. has something like 450 million acres of arable land which is being reduced in two ways. Firstly, by urbanization, which uses up at least a million acres of the best land every year and by soil erosion, which has been greatly accelerated by large-scale capital-intensive farming methods. In many parts of the United States this is already a very serious problem. Surveys have revealed losses of anything up to 34-314 tons per hectare in the southern plains of the U.S.7 The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has estimated that the U.S. has already lost about one third of its topsoil.8 Commoner has calculated that the organic content of midwest soils has declined by about 50 per cent in the last 100 years.9 By the end of the century, erosion will probably have caused another 25 million acres of arable land to be lost. Added to the losses given for urbanization, this reduces the food producing capacity by 10 per cent.10

We must also take into account that home demand will probably have increased radically by the end of the century. The population at present is about 220 million and it is increasing at the rate of 1 per cent per annum. Even if the rate decreases substantially, it is unlikely that there will be less than 300 million people in the U.S. by the year 2000. Assuming no major changes in diet in one direction or the other (trends are at present towards an increasingly extravagant one) this must mean a 30 per cent increase in the home demand for food. At present, the U.S. exports about 10 per cent of its total harvest of cereals. Now it should be obvious to all but the most obstinate that this surplus is likely to be wiped out. Incredible and terrifying as it may sound, it would appear that before the end of the century America will have ceased to be a food exporting country.* This means that in the next decades we may see not only a disappearance of food aid, but also a collapse of the international grain market. This can only mean that those countries which do not start now to make themselves totally self-sufficient in food supplies are simply doomed.

* A further implication of these trends is, of course, that the U.S. will by then have great difficulty in financing the import of the mineral resources it requires. Since the costs of maintaining this massive industrial society are growing every year—with increasingly more money required to pay for crime control, welfare, education, urban renewal, pollution control etc., the possibility that the American economy might have collapsed well before the end of the century, cannot realistically be dismissed—a consideration which further supports the thesis of this paper.

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1. D. Gale Johnson. World Agriculture in Disarray. Macmillan 1973.
2. Lester Brown. In the Human Interest. W.W. Norton Inc. NY. 1974.
3. Margaret W. Biswas and Asir K. Biswas. World Food Conference: A Perspective.
4. Wall Street Journal Dec. 29, 1975.
5. Michael Allaby. ‘Miracle Rice and Mircale Locusts,’ The Ecologist Vol. 5. No. 3. May 1973.
6. William Lockerets et alia.
7. Erik P. Eckholm. Losing Ground. To be published by W.W. Norton in 1976.
8. Roger Rendle. Hans Suss. Tellus 9. (1) 18.27.
9. Perelman. Farming with Petroleum. Environment 14.8.
10. Vernon Gill Carter and Tom Dale. Topsoil and Civilisation. Oklahoma University Press 1974.
11. Kenneth Watt. The ‘Titanic Effect Sinaur Associates 1974.

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