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Fourth International, April 1949


A. Gilbert

Starvation Ahead?

An Answer to Today’s Malthusians


From Fourth International, Vol.10 No.4, April 1949, pp.113-116.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In the year 1798, the Reverend Thomas Malthus looked about him to discover starvation on the British Isles. Not discovering any additional source of food in the same glance he assumed that he had hit upon a natural law. The pessimistic parson held that population tended to outstrip food supply and would be held in check only by starvation, pestilence and war. The pressure of population against food would resolve itself into endless conflict between nations.

A century and a half later, another man with his eyes to the heavens – this time a bird-watcher, or ornithologist – resurrected substantially the same theory from the same unsubstantial type of evidence. William Vogt looked about him to discover starvation over the entire globe. Not discovering any additional sources of food himself, and not crediting the discoveries of others, he hastened to restate the Malthusian theory in his book The Road to Survival (William Sloan Associates, N.Y.C.).

Vogt is merely one of several neo-Malthusian authors sharing the rather substantial sale of his literary efforts with Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet, and lesser works. Not the least reason for Vogt’s current popularity in bourgeois circles is his pretentious efforts to substitute “natural” causes of world chaos for the contradictions and crises of capitalism in its death agony.

Both Vogt and Osborn call themselves ecologists, which Webster defines as “biologists dealing with the mutual relations between organisms and their environment.” The falsity of their argument: may be traced to their disregard of the mutual relations between individuals and groups of the greatest organism – man. It will be the recognition and development of advanced relationships among men that will forever scotch the Malthusian delusion.

Mr. Vogt, presently the most notorious of the neo-Malthusians, is undoubtedly a man of certain scientific ability and standing. He is now chief of the conservation section of the Pan-American Union. His technical understanding of problems in soil and water conservation is, however, not matched by the acute sociological comprehension demanded by a subject as dialectical as ecology.

As an example of his over-all inconsistency, we can compare statements made in different sections of the same book. First, he shows a good measure of sense by saying with regard to soil depletion: “One of the most ruinous factors is the capitalistic system,” “Free competition and the profit motive have been disastrous to the land.” But later on he contradicts himself: “We must ... stop blaming economic systems.”

Vogt takes a decidedly non-semantic view of the food and population problem. The fact that over half of the world’s 2.2 billion population is now ill-fed, and that several million are dying of starvation every year, seems to blind him to both facts and prospects that promise to alleviate the present situation. Vogt ignores the special circumstances that have led to the current state of affairs as well as the new scientific developments in food production and the dynamics of human society itself. In addition to all this, he divides the food and population problem as if it were two separate and unrelated questions.

Analysis of a Modern Cassandra

His evaluation of world food resources is both pessimistic and myopic. The press of past and present population has resulted in serious and permanent depletion of our soil, water, plant and animal reserves. The predicted future increase in population will not only further deplete our resources an accelerated rate. Soil conservation and restoration in the US has not caught up with the present rate of depletion, and in most of the world, little or nothing is being done to check the ravages caused by man’s disruption of the hydrologic cycle (erosion, floods, etc.) and his mining of the “biotic potential” of the soil. Present conservation practices are limited to treating the effect rather than the cause of depletion.

Irreplaceable topsoil has been and is being washed away, water tables lowered, and the very weather changed. It is practically impossible to rebuild lost top soil, yet we have lost a good portion of this precious asset already. It is almost impossible to farm new tropical soils, for as soon as the forest is cut away, the sun oxidizes the already poor soil and the tropical rains leach away the soil nutrients. There is not enough arable land in the world today to properly feed the present population, and there is little or no new land fit for exploitation. We are now getting near-optimum yields of food. Greater yields merely deplete the soil factor, and fertilization is limited by dwindling fertilizer supplies. Scientific advances in crop and animal breeding, hormone treatments, fertilization, pest and weed control, mechanical equipment, hydroponics and artificial photosynthesis, as well as the possibility of now unpredictable discoveries, are all discounted as either impractical or visionary.

Responsible scientists refute these main arguments advanced by Vogt. They maintain that we now have both the soil and the scientific knowledge necessary to feed twice the present world population, and by the time the population has doubled, if it does – and that is debatable – there would undoubtedly be new discoveries. Land is not the only factor in food production, just as food is not the only factor limiting population growth. The US Soil Conservation Service now maintains that we have reversed the trend of soil erosion and depletion here, and are now building up our food potential. Although the situation still is serious in other parts of the world, the conservation pattern has been set and is certainly attainable.

Robert M. Satter of the Agricultural Research Administration of the US Department of Agriculture lists two methods of increasing food production: the more intensive and efficient use of land now being farmed, and the use of now undeveloped soil resources. He gives a conservative estimate of 1.3 billion additional acres of arable land that could be brought under cultivation. Limiting factors would be mainly lack of eduction and capital – both certainly not insurmountable.

New Techniques of Soil Cultivation

Cultivation of this new land would require development of new techniques, as well as greatly increased use of fertilizers. The three principal fertilizer elements are nitrogen, phosphate and potash. Nitrogen can be manufactured by fixation from the atmosphere, and this source is unlimited. The known reserves of phosphate will last 5,000 years, and potash 500 years. These figures do not allow for undiscovered reserves or for technical improvements in extractive methods.

A more universal use of “night soil” would not only furnish much additional fertilizer, but also stop a great deal of unnecessary water pollution. The additional production from this new land, plus the readily obtainable increase from our old soils, would provide an adequate diet for the estimated world population in 1960.

As an example of what can be done, the US during the war years increased agricultural production by one-third, while agricultural manpower decreased by one-seventh. The output of food per man is ten times greater in the advanced than in the backward nations. On a comparable acre of soil, China produces twice the crop of India; and Japan, twice the crop of China. Thus, there is no ascertainable “biotic potential.”

Man can greatly increase the carrying capacity of the land through the wise choice of plants to be grown and the proper use of those plants. If national and tariff barriers were removed, the land could always be used for the crops most adaptable or necessary. Shortages of calories, proteins, fats, minerals or vitamins; or agricultural labor; or a combination of any of these could be ironed out through a scientific selection of crops. Some plants produce more calories per acre than others, some produce less calories but more proteins, some produce less units per acre but more units per man.

For example, an average acre of soil will produce 6,250,000 calories when planted to sugar beets, 1,545,000 calories in soybeans, and only 350,000 when feed is raised and fed to dairy cattle. If the emphasis is on protein, soybeans will yield 340 pounds per acre; milk cows, 39 pounds and sugar beets, none. Again, if labor is scarce, soybeans will produce the most calories per day of man labor – 1,030,000; sugar beats – 545,000; and milk cows – 65,000. Of course, the protein from milk is worth more nutritionally than the protein from soybeans, due to the relative content of essential amino acids. Animal by-products, such as manure and hides, are also important factors for consideration.

The world diet is now made up of 73 percent grain, 12 percent vegetables and fruit, 6 percent sugar and 9 percent animal products. Animal products make up 3 percent of the Asiatic diet, 25 percent of the American diet and 36 percent of the New Zealand-Australian diet. On Asiatic standards, the present world food-supply would support 2,800 million people; and on the American standard, 900 million. Adequate reserves of food in storage would increase still further our population capacity. The problem is, therefore, a complicated one, calling for intense planning on a scale not possible under present world or even national economic organization. However, economic organization is anything but static.

The possibilities of hydroponics – the growing of plants in “fertilized water” – are already proved and need only commercial adaptation. The dream of artificial photosynthesis – the process by which plants store up energy from the sun – is a distinct possibility now, and almost a certainty if research in this field is given the same measure of financial support as was research in nuclear fission. In fact, it is a by-product of’ atomic energy – carbon 14 – that now offers the most promising key to the secret of plant life. Progress has already been made to the point where scientists now consider it perfectly feasible to “farm the sea.”

A Revolutionary Discovery

Under the sensational title, News of Revolutionary Food Discovery Means That We Can Now Banish Hunger from the Earth, Nat S. Finney reports Dr. Richard Meier’s analysis of world problems. (Look, Feb. 1, 1949.) Dr. Meier will publish his findings in a technical report to be released later this year.

The gist of the report is that food can now be produced in factories without using soil, and, in fact, is already being produced and utilized. Reference is made to a project in Jamaica in the West Indies, where crude molasses is being turned into a high-protein food yeast at the rate of five tons a day. One element of the new food-production team is chlorella, a green alga or single-celled plant, such as is found in the scum on ponds; the other element is the yeast cell. Like chlorella, it is independent of the soil.

The question concerning food supplies now posed is: Can and will all these steps be taken in time to obviate the Malthusian predictions of increasing starvation and world conflict? Historical analysis demonstrates that we must predicate our hopes for a world of plenty on a new social and economic order that does not pause to compute dollar profits before proceeding with essential action. The dislocations, delays and anarchy of capitalist organization give aid and comfort to the prophets of doom.

There is the story of the careless farmer who was urged to attend a meeting on soil conservation. “There’s no use my going to that meeting about farming better,” he replied. “I don’t farm as good as I know how to now.” It is no joke, however, that most farmers today cannot afford, under our present economic system, “to farm as good as they know how.” In the past year, the prices of farm products dropped 20 percent while the cost of operating the farms dropped only 1 percent. Under capitalism, this complicates, to say the least, the problem of soil conservation.

Friedrich Engels gave a crushing answer to the Vogts as far back as 1865:

Too little is produced, that is the cause of the whole thing. But why is too little produced? Not because the limits of production – even today and with present day means – are exhausted. No, but because the limits of production are determined not by the number of hungry bellies but by the number of purges able to buy and to pay. Bourgeois society does not and cannot wish to produce any more. The moneyless bellies, the labor which cannot be utilized for profit and therefore cannot buy, is left to the death-rate. Let a sudden industrial boom, such as is constantly occurring, make it possible for this labor to be employed with profit, then it will get money to spend, and the means of subsistence have never hitherto been lacking. This is the vicious circle in which the whole economic system revolves. One presupposes bourgeois conditions as a whole, and then proves that every part of them is a necessary part – and therefore an “eternal law.” (Letter to F.A. Lange, Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels, page 199.)

The nub of the question for the neo-Malthusians is how to reduce the world’s population. Here they have advanced little beyond the “fruit fly” theory of their mentor. Against such population-limiting measures as famine, pestilence and war, they offer the alternative of voluntary “population control” – a variant of the “continence” suggested by Malthus. A seeming improvement on the clergyman’s rather sour advice, “population control” involves birth control through use of chemical or mechanical devices or through sterilization. The latter, our ornithologist crows, “does not interfere with sexual pleasure nor with physical satisfaction.” Neo-Malthusian “science” now makes it possible for man to eat his cake and have it too.

Vogt and his co-thinkers do not explain exactly how they hope to evangelize almost two billion people, many of whom do not want to be thus altered or inconvenienced, and most of whom live in an environment too backward to allow a proper understanding of what is expected of them. The proposal reflects only a complete lack of understanding of the whole science of population, and is the point of departure for dangerous and reactionary conclusions.

Vogt, for instance, has resurrected the old “yellow peril” falsification. With typical imperialist insolence, he advises against feeding starving millions in Asia and Europe, lest they use the additional food to support a larger population which in turn would eventually “overrun the West.” He would rather divert human food to sustain “wildlife.” War and pestilence he views in a favorable light because they reduce population and are more humane than famine.

He looks back with envy on ancient Greece, which avoided overpopulation by employing prostitution, infanticide, emigration and colonization. He admires Eire, which in the last hundred years has halved her population at the expense of leaving half of her adult population unmarried. He opposes higher living standards for farmers, as they are obtained, he maintains, through more intense exploitation of the land. Agricultural mechanization is to be opposed as it is more attractive than a horse economy, and will not act as a buffer to absorb the city unemployed as will a more primitive system of organization!

War, famine, pestilence and birth control missionaries – such are the nostrums of the voices of doom to save a doomed system. But we do not have to guess at the answer to unlimited population increase, for history has already provided it. Only economic progress – industrialization, urbanization, and higher living standards – will slow down and stabilize the birth rate. Only in the most backward countries does increased food supply result in increasing fecundity. No advanced country has yet attained a better standard of living by consciously restricting its birth rate. A declining birth rate is an effect, not a cause of ecenomic progress. In the backward deep South, we have the same high birth and death rates as do the backward countries of Asia.

Problem of the Backward Countries

In fear of the consequences of the agrarian revolution and of the socialist aspirations of the young proletariat, world imperialism has deliberately perpetuated this backwardness in the Far East. To expect capitalism to reverse this trend in a period of immense social conflicts and global wars is both utopian and reactionary. Just as Utopian is the program of “agrarian reform” of the Chinese Stalinists. Giving the peasants back their diminutive parcels of land merely perpetuates the inefficiencies of a long outmoded social organization. To cure its population problem, China needs fewer farmers on larger mechanized farms, urbanization and industrialization.

Urban families simply have fewer children than do rural families. It is only a seeming contradiction that a reduction in the world’s farming population is a condition for increasing the food supply. However, the initial impetus must come from the city, and with the urban bourgeoisie decadent and impotent, the task reverts to the urban proletariat. The Chinese “Communists,” distrusting and fearful of the workers as are the Stalinists everywhere, are left holding their own bootstraps.

An examination of the population curves of the advanced countries will give the lie to the Malthusian forebodings. In its incipient stages, industrialization is accompanied by an initial sharp rise in the curve, followed by a gradual leveling-off and stabilization. Only a suicidal rejection of the socialist future of mankind can lead to the conclusion that this classic curve will not continue to characterize continued human progress.

But Vogt and the rest of today’s Malthusians, who see starvation ahead unless the American imperialists impose rigid controls on what they like to call the “backward peoples,” do not stand for continued human progress – on a world-wide scale. These are not the prophets who will lead the peoples of the world into lands “flowing with milk and honey.” Only in a Socialist United States of the World will the benefits of scientific agriculture be given to all of the peoples of the world, because only a socialist economy can permit the rationalization of food production.

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