The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

A Starving World Fed Up With Profits

Mar 31, 1981

Recently, the problems of hunger and starvation in the world were again in the news as the food shortage in Africa has become more severe. Today 28 countries in Africa are suffering from famine according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. The fact that in Somalia, a country of 3.7 million people, there are 1.5 million refugees in dire need of food reflects the depth of the problem.

By UN official estimates, today 50 per cent of the world’s population is suffering from malnutrition. And 13 per cent of the world’s population is literally starving to death. The UN estimates that every hour 425 people die of starvation or of hunger-related illnesses.

And yet, today, technology and society’s productive forces have both advanced sufficiently, so that humanity could have control over nature and could protect itself from hunger. And this technology is constantly developing. We can see the possibilities of what this technology could be when we look at the U.S.

Able to Feed the World, but...

Of all the countries in the world, the United States utilizes the most advanced agricultural technology. For example, the U.S. has the capability, today, to forecast the yield of all crops, in regions and countries throughout the world. Through satellites the U.S. has circling the globe, reports are fed back which could enable the U.S. government to determine the optimum moment for harvest, to identify overgrazed, undergrazed or underirrigated pastures, to detect insect infestations or plant diseases before they become visible to the naked eye, to detect plants deficient in any mineral nutrients, to monitor soil humidity, salinity or erosion.

While the U.S. is clearly able to utilize the most sophisticated agricultural technology, it also uses the more standard products of technology such as fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery.

U.S. agriculture is the most productive in the world. The scale of the improvement in the capacity of U.S. agriculture can be seen in the fact that output per worker increased 770 per cent between 1910 and 1970, and output per acre in the same time period increased 185 per cent. Today in the United States, between three and four per cent of the American population produces enough food to feed the other 96 per cent, and with a lot left over. In 1979, the U.S. exported over 30 billion dollars in farm exports.

Clearly, productive forces are such that the possibility now exists in the United States to feed the entire U.S. population and to feed it well.

In fact, the productive capacity that exists in the U.S. alone could put an end to starvation and the problem of hunger in the world. This point is underlined in a report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1977:

“If the estimated 460 million malnourished people of the world were provided daily with additional grain equal to 550 calories, much of the world malnutrition would be alleviated. On an annual basis about 25 million tons of cereal would be needed, about two per cent of the average annual world cereal production during the last decade. The world could rather easily produce two per cent more grain.”

For example, we see this clearly in the world-wide food crisis of 1972. The World Food Conference stated that only eight to 12 million tons of wheat would have been sufficient to “avoid the worst” famine in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tanzania and the Sahel countries during those years. The U.S. government had made a conscious decision in 1968 to take land out of production. This action alone prevented 90 million tons of wheat from being produced – wheat that could have been stored in anticipation of future famines. While the United States made a conscious decision to limit production during this four year period, millions of people starved to death in these regions.

Why did the government make this decision?

In the late 1960s agricultural advances in mechanization, fertilizers and pesticides along with the development of hybrid seeds produced surpluses of wheat in both Canada and the U.S. Prices began to drop in the wheat trade. The five major wheat producing companies asked the government for protection. In 1968, the U.S. government responded by taking land out of production – paying the farmers not to produce wheat.

These companies were Cargill, Continental Grain, Bunge, Dreyfus and the Andre-Garnace complex which between them control about 85 per cent of U.S. grain exports. These companies are the major grain traders in the world. The five companies are controlled by just eight families.

They run integrated merchandising structures, extending from the farmers’ fields to markets. They control local grain elevators, storage bins, railroad cars, shipping barges and own port facilities and processing plants around the world.

This one example is symbolic of the way in which these monopolies use their domination of agricultural technology.

The agricultural means of production are owned and controlled by the large monopolies in the major imperialist countries. They control the production and distribution of food: from owning the land, through the harvesting, processing, transporting and merchandising of the food. It is conglomerates like Tenneco, whose total operating revenue in 1975 was over 5.5 billion dollars, which dominate the business of food production and distribution.

In their hands, this technology that has the potential to feed the world’s people, remains fettered. Simply, these monopolies make their decisions on the use of this technology based on what will be the most profitable for them – make them the most money – not on what will best feed the world’s population.

The consequence of this is that not only isn’t the present technology being used to eliminate starvation and hunger on a world-wide basis, but even in the United States, between ten and 12 per cent of the population (according to the government’s own statistics) are suffering from malnutrition.

“Green Revolution”?

Throughout the world, it is the biggest corporations and the banks that control agricultural technology. Specifically, it is the banks and corporations of the imperialist world: Western Europe, Japan, Canada somewhat, and especially the United States. These countries use a disproportionate share of the world’s agricultural resources and technology. What does not exist within their own borders they take from other countries. Certainly the agricultural productive capacity of the United States can be attributed in large degree to the fact that it is the strongest imperialist power and has thus been best able to plunder and dominate the world’s agricultural technology. And its domination has the consequence of preventing this same technology from being used in the countries of the underdeveloped world.

An example of this was seen in the late ’60s, when the large fertilizer producers pulled plants out of production and, through their control of financial institutions, denied loans to the underdeveloped countries which wanted to build their own production facilities. They were able greatly to restrict fertilizer production.

In the early 1960s, technological innovations reduced the production cost of fertilizer by over 20 per cent. The existing per-plant production was able to increase from an average of 600 tons a day to 1,000 tons a day or more. As the supply increased, the price began to drop from $90 a ton to $20 a ton, making fertilizer accessible to some of the underdeveloped countries for the first time, but making its production less profitable for the big corporations.

The big corporations agreed to restrict production and raise the price of chemicals used in fertilizer. For example, Urea, which is basic to nitrogen fertilizer, went from $16 a ton in 1971 to $300 a ton in 1974.

This prevented the underdeveloped countries, which have their own production facilities, from producing fertilizers. These plants, if used to full capacity, could produce 17 per cent of the world’s fertilizer. But today these plants are not able to run at full capacity, because these countries have insufficient capital to purchase the chemicals required for fertilizer production. Today the underdeveloped countries are producing only eight per cent of all fertilizer produced. This is one of the things which restricts their consumption to only 15 per cent of the world’s fertilizer supply. This is particularly significant when you understand that a ton of fertilizer applied in a previously unfertilized area (such as most of the land in the underdeveloped countries) can produce up to ten extra tons of grain.

One of the most striking examples of what imperialist domination of agricultural technology means can be seen in the so-called “Green Revolution,” which was supposed to herald salvation for the underdeveloped countries.

In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, agricultural experts were saying the problem of world hunger was about to be solved. A technological revolution in the development of hybrid seeds was going to produce two or three times the yield per acre and do it with a shorter growing cycle. These new seeds were bought up in the early 1960s by many of the underdeveloped countries.

Unfortunately, most of these seeds have a low resistance to disease, and crops sown with these new seeds are dependent on the use of pesticides. However, the underdeveloped countries have had little access to the necessary pesticides. The production of pesticide compounds is controlled by a small number of corporations, many of which are linked with the oil companies. These monopolies have consciously chosen to limit the production of pesticides. With demand for pesticides throughout the world constantly higher than supply, the price of pesticides is kept high and the underdeveloped countries are simply out bid in the market. In 1970, the U.S. bought 45 per cent of all the compounds available, Western Europe bought 23 per cent, followed by Eastern Europe and Japan. The total sales to all the underdeveloped countries amounted to no more than seven per cent. Their access to pesticides has not improved over the years.

At present, it is estimated that one third of every crop sown that does not use pesticides for these new seeds is destroyed on the stalk. And it is estimated that over 40 per cent of the food put in storage in these countries is destroyed by pests. In 1978, the Asian Development Bank, one of the chief promoters of the “Green Revolution” in Asia admitted that in 13 Asian countries over the past decade, “and in particular in the worst-off countries, India, Indonesia and the Philippines the technology of the Green Revolution has brought this region no closer to solving the food problem than ten years ago.”

So even technological advances that could be spectacular are prevented, by the imperialist domination of agricultural technology, from aiding those who would most benefit from them.

Food Production for Export – Not for Hungry People

When agricultural technology is used in the underdeveloped countries of the world, it is controlled by either the big foreign monopolies or by the big native landowners. And they use it to produce food for export to the imperialist countries. What this means for the peoples of the underdeveloped countries can be illustrated by examining briefly the situation in Mexico and Brazil.

Both Mexico and Brazil, unlike much of the rest of the underdeveloped world, have been able to purchase fertilizer, tractors and pesticides. For example, in Mexico, fertilizer consumption jumped dramatically from 3,500 tons in 1950 to 700,000 tons by 1972.

But where has this advanced technology been used? In Mexico, 73 per cent of all farm machinery is used by the large landowners or by the foreign monopolies. The vast majority of them, particularly in the northern regions of Mexico, produce crops only for exports. In Brazil, 80 per cent of all tractors are used in the southern states of Parana, Sao Paulo, and Rio Grande do Sul, the center of production for export crops like soybeans and coffee.

The crops in these countries which are intended for export have achieved spectacular growth rates with the aid of agricultural technology. In Brazil, soybean production has increased at a rate of eight to 12 per cent a year for the past decade. The profits to those producing and processing and marketing these crops have been enormous. In Mexico, the gross income per acre in the northen region rose as much as 50 per cent between 1962-1972.

But at the same time, most staple food production in these countries has not had access to or benefitted from the advances in agricultural technology. The small farmers usually involved in staple crop production can’t raise the capital needed to obtain or purchase this technology. And neither the landlords, multinational corporations nor the banks see a reason to invest in crops for food production for domestic consumption when there is more profit to be made in producing for export. In the Bajio valley of Mexico, three multinational food processing companies operate canning and packing plants. They are Del Monte, Campbell’s and General Foods. They are supplied by large landowners whose numbers have been increasing as the number of peasants who produce staple crops and could not compete have been driven off the land. For example, in 1964, Del Monte had contracts with 21 growers for 413 acres or an average of 20 acres per grower. In 1974, the company had 110 growers with a total of 5,000 acres or an average of 45 acres. And in 1980, they have contracts with 150 growers for an average size of 50 acres all totaling 7,500 acres of the land in this one valley.

Land in Brazil that once produced black beans to feed people is now being used to grow soybeans that are turned into animal feed to fatten cattle for the Japanese market.

The effect of this is that not only has staple crop production not increased (because of lack of access to technological advances) but it has decreased as more land has been put into production for export crops.

While a certain percentage of the population work the land or in the factories of the multinational corporations, they do not consume the food they produce. For example, Del Monte in Bajio contracts for and processes three main crops: sweet corn, peas and asparagus. None of these crops is important in the Mexican diet. Sweet corn and peas are high priced, considered a delicacy and can only be purchased by the middle and upper classes. And 90 per cent of the asparagus crop is shipped aborad.

These two countries, Mexico and Brazil, that used to be able to feed their populations (excluding times of natural disaster) are no longer able to do so, even on a regular basis. Today it is estimated that over 80 per cent of Mexico’s rural population is suffering from malnutrition. And the drop in the purchasing power of the people of Brazil has also resulted in a general decline in their standard of living. For example, today in Brazil, 43 per cent of the labor force earns the minimum wage which amounts to $92.00 a month or less, yet a basic food basket for a month now costs three times that amount.

What this pattern has added up to throughout Latin America is:

“The consequences of this high-technology farming accompanied by greatly reduced employment opportunities have been higher food prices, highly concentrated land holdings, reduction in real wages for those lucky enough to have work, and rural migration which merely displaces poverty from the countryside into the cities. Large scale mechanization might have made sense in the wide-open spaces of the U.S. where few extra hands were available for farm work, but contributes to social disaster in Asian or Latin American circumstances.” Susan George, Feeding the Few: Corporate Control of Food

In fact, it is not the large scale mechanization itself, but the use of mechanization made by the big imperialist monopolies which has created social disaster. Within the imperialist world framework, agricultural technology has had the opposite effect of what it could have.

The Same Old Contradiction

The destruction which results from a few people owning and controlling the agricultural means of production is not a new phenomenon. A process very similar to what is taking place in the underdeveloped countries of the world took place in the industrialized countries of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

For example, in England, at the end of the 17th century, new agricultural technology was developed: new crops were introduced that had the ability to replenish the soil faster; deep ploughing and hoeing were introduced; a new method of breeding sheep and cattle was introduced, raising the average weight of the herds and in turn creating more fertilizer. Finally, by the beginning of the 1800s, the iron plough began to come into use.

All these technological innovations had one thing in common: they required access to capital and to more land.

Many of the peasants without necessary capital found they could not compete or went into debt trying to and lost their land. Others had their land stolen from them by the enclosure acts which had transferred the land communally owned and used for firewood and pasture land into private land owned by a small class of landlords.

Dispossessed of their land, these peasants were driven into the cities to the textile mills and the factories created by the Industrial Revolution.

The consequences of this process were much the same as they are today: those who owned and controlled the technology used it for their own benefit, contrary to the interest of the vast majority of the people.

But the obvious difference between the 17th and 18th centuries and today is simply that today agricultural technology has developed sufficiently to make it possible to truly feed the world’s people. In the 17th century even if capitalism had entered on the scene, the world was still in the end of the Middle Ages. The productive forces of society had not yet advanced to the point that allowed society to produce enough food to buffer itself against the shortages that occurred more or less every three years, or the famines that occurred on an average of every ten years.

But today, we could be on the verge of eliminating hunger. Under capitalism, agricultural technology has been developed to the point that humanity could protect itself from the problems created by natural causes. Food production could be rationalized; planned and organized according to need, on an international scale. The means to do it exist–that it is not done is one of the major contradictions of capitalist society.

The consequence of this is that today 13 per cent of the world’s people are starving to death and over half are suffering from malnutrition.

But as long as the means of agricultural production are owned and controlled by the capitalists of the world and utilized for their own profit, agricultural production will remain fettered, and obstacles will be placed in the way of further agricultural advancement. No longer are the productive forces too backward to produce enough food. Today people are suffering from hunger and dying from starvation because of the imperialist system.