All Commentary
Sunday, January 1, 1967

Can Food Supply Keep Pace With Population Growth

Internationally famed economist, Karl Brandt, shows that food supply can outpace population growth if coercive controls are avoided.

Many practical, logical, ethical, and moral arguments can legiti­mately be advanced in support of the 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.  (For more on this topic, see “How a Free Market Deals with Overpopulation.”)

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, the 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, oil, natural gas, uranium, plutonium. Overabundance has made energy in any desireable quantity available anywhere in the worldCombined 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.

An 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

An 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 the land. The same small pump and pipe units drain swamps and open wetland 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 the freedom to improve.If famine should occur, neither scarcity of natural or man-made resources nor population growth offer valid excuses. 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 offers 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 timetable 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 a 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 percent 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 the 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.