All Commentary
Tuesday, October 1, 1985

African Famine: The Harvest of Socialist Agriculture

David Osterfeld is Associate Professor of Political Science at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, and an associate of The Institute for Humane Studies.

The popular explanation of the current famine in Africa is the drought. But is this convincing? The North American Great Plains has major droughts about every twenty years, the most severe being the 1934-36 Dust Bowl. A major drought was recorded in California in 1977 and the 1975-76 drought in England was labeled “unprecedented” in its severity. Yet none of these resulted in famine. In fact, the 1977 California harvest was a record high. And food production in England increased by 15 percent between 1975 and 1980.

Why is it that droughts occur in all parts of the world but, with a few exceptions, famines are confined to Africa?

The United Nations (UN) has listed 24 African countries as threatened by famine. These countries have one crucially important thing in common. They have all pursued policies which amount to nothing short of an assault on agriculture. The policies include the following.

Marketing Boards

The stated purpose of these Boards, which are found in most of the 24 countries including Ethiopia, is to insulate the farmer from price fluctuations. In fact, the Boards are typically used to raise government revenue. The farmer is forced to sell his produce to the Board which, because it is a government monopoly, need pay him only a fraction of its actual market value. The typical farmer in Tanzania receives about 10 percent of the value of his produce. In Kenya it is 15 percent and in Ghana 20 percent. Adding insult to injury, the farmer must then pay taxes on the income he does receive.

Outlawing Middlemen

The Boards could not operate as revenue agents if farmers were free to sell their produce elsewhere. Thus, the private sale of food has been outlawed or severely restricted in many countries. In Ethiopia and Tanzania, for example, those caught violating the prohibition are beaten or killed.


In order to stimulate local industry and to appease a small but politically powerful urban elite, private foreign investment has been discouraged and foreign-owned companies have been nationalized. Tariffs, subsidies and licensing restrictions have been enacted. These policies have allowed local manufacturers to sell their goods at well above free-market levels. This means that the African farmer must confront artificially inflated prices with an artificially deflated income.

State Farms

State farms are notoriously inefficient. While other socialist countries such as China have been dismantling them, African countries have been busy creating them. Ghana established large state farms in the 1960s. Its per capita food out-put fell 19 percent during the 1970s. Tanzania began its Ujama Program in 1970, resettling some 13 of its 18 million people onto collective villages. Its per capita food output fell 15 percent in ten years. A food exporter in 1970, it imported over $16 million worth of food in 1980. Mozambique became independent in 1975 and promptly created state collectives. Within 5 years per capita’ food output fell 12 percent. In Ethiopia state farms comprise 4 percent of the land, receive 90 percent of the state’s agricultural investment, but 80 percent of them operate at a loss. Yet the ten-year plan calls for a doubling of the state farm sector.

Land Reform

Several countries, including Mozambique, Zaire and Tanzania, have implemented land reform, but Ethiopia’s is the best known. Contrary to the way it is depicted by the media, much of Ethiopia is extremely fertile. It would be the breadbasket of Africa, agronomists said, were its development not retarded by feudalism. In 1975 the new Marxist government nationalized all land. Feudalism ended; “Ethiopian Socialism” began. Instead of development, farm output, low to begin with, declined. Why? The principle of land distribution was to allocate to each family enough land to feed itself but no more. The use of hired labor was prohibited, as was the private sale of farm produce and machinery. The primary purpose of the reform said the UN, which applauded it as “progressive” and “forward-looking,” was to prevent the emergence of “commercial agriculture” by making farm plots too small for machinery to be economically viable. Thus, the reform changed little. Under feudalism the farmer had little incentive to produce. Under socialism he has even less. Over 60 percent of Ethiopia is arable. But only 10 percent is cultivated. As one authority commented: “The low rate of land use may be attributed to lack of motivation to produce anything beyond subsistence levels.”

It is hardly surprising that these policies produced shortages. Indeed, it would have been surprising if they had not.

The Market Solution

History shows two things quite clearly: 1) the application of Socialist measures to agriculture results in declining production, food shortages and sometimes even famine; and 2) the application of Capitalist measures to agriculture tends to produce agricultural abundance.

For example, prior to the 1917 Revolution, Russia was a major exporter of food. By 1920, however, the area under cultivation in the Soviet Union had declined by 50 percent and yields per acre fell by 40 to 50 percent. An estimated six million Russians died of starvation. Millions more died in the 1930s as a result of Stalin’s collectivization program. Eventually single-acre private plots were grudgingly permitted. Small as they are, these plots are about 40 times as efficient as the collective farms. There is certainly a degree of irony in the fact that despite its tremendous agricultural potential the Soviet Union is now the single largest purchaser of US grain exports.

India provides a very instructive contrast to the Soviet Union. After highly interventionist if not socialist policies resulted in famine in the early 1970s, India abandoned price controls on agriculture. By 1977 India not only was self-sufficient, it was exporting large quantities of grain. In addition, it had built up a grain reserve of 22 million tons, which enabled it to manage the severe drought of 1979 without the need for food imports.

The famine in Africa is certainly a tragedy. It is all the more tragic because it need not have happened. There is no need for it to happen again. Anyone with a serious desire to end recurrent famines would do well to take a look at what results from an ideological commitment to socialism. Let the free market operate, for wherever farmers have been exposed to market incentives, farm output has increased. []

  • Dr. Osterfeld was assistant professor of political science at Saint Joseph's College, Rensselaer, Indiana.