All Commentary
Monday, August 1, 1983

Lasers, Harobeds, And World Hunger

Mr. Baetjer is a graduate student in political science at Boston College. This article first appeared in the March 17, 1983 issue of The Observer of Boston College and is reprinted here by permission.

What do lasers have to do with world hunger? They help decrease it, that’s what. Of course it is a complex story, though it all transpired in a remarkably short time. Development of the laser won a Nobel Prize in 1962, and less than twenty years later lasers were being used to level fields in the parched Humboldt River Valley of Nevada (among other places), to improve irrigation. When a field 1200 ft. long drops off at the rate of .21 ft. in every hundred, given the kind of soil they have in the Humboldt Valley, water released into the field at the high end will slide out just as evenly as can be and soak into the entire field in precisely the same amount all over.

The laser allows the rancher to get the fields absolutely fiat, and dropping off at exactly the right rate. At one end of the field an instrument is set up and adjusted so that it emits a plane of laser light at exactly the right angle. This light is read by a sensor attached to a huge machine with a scraping blade and a reservoir of topsoil. When the ground rises up, the sensor tells the blade to shave the area down some; when the ground drops off, it tells the ma chine to dump some soil.

Once a field has been laser-planed, if the irrigator lets in the right amount of water at the right rate, irrigation will be perfectly even, and the alfalfa growing there will soak up the water and the hot Nevada sun, and grow up so thick and so fast that it looks like something out of Walt Disney Productions. And it will grow like that over every square foot of the field: all the way to all the edges, with no dry spots and no muddy areas the way there always used to be. It is an amazing thing, I assure you—I have cut both kinds of fields.

The importance of all this to world hunger is that alfalfa is terrific feed for livestock. By making alfalfa production more efficient, laser technology provides us a means of feeding more livestock, one source of food for the hungry of the world. Those fields produce an average of 37 and a half 135-pound bales per acre, three times a summer. That’s 15,187.5 pounds of hay per acre.

When you figure that a healthy cow eats about 24 pounds of hay a day, that means each acre of those fields produces enough hay in a summer to feed a cow for 633 days, or a herd of 21 cows for a month. An acre, bear in mind, is smaller than a football field. A standard 40- acre field (almost all of which I could cut myself in a single ten-hour day) would yield enough hay to feed 70 cows for a year. That’s a whole lot of milk and cheese and butter. The point is that if we could get more areas of the world producing the way the Humboldt River Valley does, the world hunger problem would start to disappear.

The Inadequacy of Redistribution

I use this little illustration from my own experience by way of disagreement with my college’s World Hunger Committee, and similar groups which advocate redistribution as a solution to the world’s dreadful problem of want. In our campus cafeteria there is a poster put up by the World Hunger Committee, which gives some figures about production, consumption and hunger in different parts of the world. It points out that we in the United States consume far more per person than people in other nations and concludes with this: “Redistribution is necessary for the future.”

Though the World Hunger Committee is to be applauded for its concern and efforts to bring the problem to our attention, their poster does not point out the reason for the problem, and the solution it proposes is utterly inadequate and ill-advised. Hunger is not a distribution problem, and redistribution cannot possibly solve it. Hunger is a production problem; the only thing that can solve it is the political and economic change that will allow production to occur.

Redistribution as a “solution” to the problem of hunger is apparently premised on the assumption that there is only a certain amount to go around. Reallocating what food there is now in the world might, under ideal circumstances, alleviate the hunger problem for a while. It could never do away with it. Even now there is not enough to go around with any sort of bounty, and in any case the population of the world is growing. Relying on redistribution would mean resigning ourselves to progressively less and less for each as “the world’s goods” were split up among more and more. This is an unnecessarily despairing response to the problem, for it is not true that “there is only a certain amount to go around.”

The Productive Potential

Potentially, there is plenty to go around. There are many areas of the world which could be supplying food at tremendously greater rates than currently. Land presently in cultivation could be made to produce more; the crops grown there could be improved or replaced with others more suited to a given soil or climate; land presently out of cultivation could be made productive with irrigation, drainage, fertilizers and the like; planting and harvesting methods could be improved; transportation of crops to markets could be improved; refrigeration could reduce spoilage, and so on. The potential to improve production is, if not boundless, limited only by people’s ingenuity, which has throughout history produced tremendous gains wherever it has been left free to work its miracles.

Consider the case of the ranch in Nevada. One hundred years ago, maybe much less, a lot of the land now bursting with alfalfa was desert, considered inarable. Nothing much grew there but sagebrush, and the Humboldt River flowed by at a distance, gradually evaporating and finally drying up completely in one of those amazingly barren Nevada salt basins. How did that land come to be such a cornucopia?

• Labor, for one thing. The first irrigation ditches were probably dug with picks and shovels, the first fields smoothed out as well as possible by hand, the ranchers filling in the low spots as well as they could by eye. Machines do most of the physical work now, but there is still a whole lot of labor in maintaining them, driving them, building fences, and the like.

• Tools, for another: picks, shovels and hoes were the staples at first, I suppose, and then mule-drawn plows and harrows, rudimentary surveying gear to help smooth out the fields, scythes for the harvesting and so on. Better techniques and materials contributed, too: fertilizers, irrigation by sections (with levees to keep the water level more even) and so on.

As time went by, the tools were improved, and for the same amount of labor the amount that could be produced increased steadily. With the internal combustion engine there came self-powered machines for digging the irrigation ditches, pulling the plows and hay wagons, and running the balers. With modern chemistry there came better fertilizers; biologists developed better strains of alfalfa; metallurgists provided cutting blades that kept an edge longer. With each step the same land and labor produced more hay.

Finally—most recently, I should say, for who knows what next year will bring—there came laser planes and harobeds (that’s Deborah backwards, named after the wife of the man who invented them): truck-like machines which, with a scoop and a system of conveyors and platforms, pick up and arrange seventy bales at a time, carry them to the stack lot, and put them down neatly (if the driver is skillful!), to wait for the big flatbeds that will take them away to markets in four or five states. The newest harobeds at the ranch where I work have a little computer that keeps track of the bales and lays them together in an interlocking fashion that stacks better than was possible previously, reducing moisture loss. Step by step, improvement by improvement, machine by machine, the desert bloomed and burgeoned forth with ever greater quantities of hay.

This same kind of process can go on, according to the necessities of each climate and location, all over the world. Lands that are poor can become rich. People who now lean over all day planting rice shoot by shoot can go to other productive endeavors, leaving behind them ever fewer others, who will grow ever more rice with ever better machines, fertilizers and techniques. As the desert bloomed, so can the swamplands, the hillsides and the jungles (not to mention the good lands now way below potential) as long as labor and ever-better tools are applied to them.

The Heart of the Problem

From this point of view, we can begin to see why there are so many hungry people in the world. Certainly there is no lack of labor—in the poorest countries everyone works in every available way to try to make ends meet. The problem lies with the productivity of that labor. The backbreaking labor of twenty men working with trowels could not plant in a day what a single one of them could plant in the same time on a modern planter. The same twenty men with sickles could not harvest in a day the forty acres of alfalfa I can cut, sitting comfortably in the air-conditioned cab of a Sperry-New Holland “swather.” Until they have better tools, the poor areas of the world will stay poor.

And this brings us to the heart of the matter. In order to have good tools, particularly the complex machinery that can bring about plenty, there must be a highly complex and efficient economic system in which production and maintenance of such tools is possible. There must be room for innovation, so that new, more efficient ideas may be put into practice. There must be hard work, so that plans are thoughtfully made and thoroughly executed. There must be efficient allocation of resources. There must be risk-taking, for in an uncertain world one cannot know what tools will work well and therefore be in demand. Inefficient or obsolete processes and means of production must disappear, to make room for the newer and better. Above all, there must be the accumulation of capita]: people must save money in large quantities, so that the funds will be available to support the complex and time-consuming process of machine-building.

This means, in turn, that there must be economic freedom. What must be avoided above all are the repressive economic policies that grow out of a redistributive approach to society. People cannot innovate by command, or when burdened by regulation. There is no incentive to work hard when the fruits of one’s labor are taken from him (presumably to be “redistri buted”). There can be no efficient resource allocation where prices cannot vary according to the laws of supply and demand. There will be no risk-taking if people are not allowed to realize the rewards of taking them. Inefficient and obsolete practices will not give way to newer and better when they are protected by government. And there will be no capital accumulation—the lifeblood of production—when savings are heavily taxed, when profits are taken away, when inheritance is outlawed. The redistributive ethos, which inhibits production at every step, could reasonably be said to be the fundamental reason why hunger persists in the world so long after the technical means of eradicating it have been available.

The Solution

If the tools necessary to feed the world are going to come into existence, the world must take a big political step forward. Government intervention in the economy must be abandoned. People must be left free to produce, and they must be allowed to have the benefit of their productivity. They must be allowed to own the means of production, to accumulate fortunes, and to trade freely with one another, without restraint by some authority which purports to know what is good for them better than they themselves.

Ultimately, the solution to the problem of world hunger lies in free enterprise, in the profit and loss system, in the private property order—in capitalism. Only in this kind of economic freedom are the marvelous creative abilities of human beings released. Redistribution is impossible without prior production. Redistribution could never have turned that Nevada desert green. But with swathers and balers and harobeds, with tractors and irrigation ditches and laser-planes—with the fruits of enterprise and accumulated capital, in short—the desert blooms. Redistribution is not necessary for the future; capitalism is.