Review of Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity - Gary Roth

Review of Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity - Gary Roth
Review of Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity - Gary Roth

Gary Roth reviews "Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity" by Francis Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins for Issue 7 of the US libertarian marxist journal. Undated but published late 1978/early 1979.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on March 3, 2022

Francis Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins, Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity, Boston: Houghton Mifflin; 1977.

Francis Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins have written a book which provides one of the more detailed descriptions yet to appear of the capitalist division of labor as it applies to agriculture. While this is not the ostensible purpose of the book, it is one of the more important themes in it.

Both capitalist production and the expansion of society in goods and population depend on the modern division of labor. This situation, however, also threatens people with hunger and starvation if the marketing system based on the division of labor ever breaks down; unless, that is, it can immediately be replaced by an alternative form of distribution. Natural disasters have always posed a threat to human society, but the division of labor created a new form of vulnerability toward nature. Never before have the industrial and agricultural capacities of society been greater, but also never before has society been faced with the possibility of extinction as a permanent facet of society's organization.

A hundred years ago Marx speculated that a nation which ceased to work "even for a few weeks would perish". 1 If anything, the situation is more extreme today. Access to food depends on daily shipments of produce and the constant restocking of the merchandiser's shelves. In the cities, the food close at hand would hardly serve as a temporary buffer; the availability of processed foods depends on an extensive network for receiving raw materials and distributing the finished products. Even farmers and agricultural workers face this situation; the division of production into component parts extends into agriculture, and people cannot live long on a diet of strawberries, wheat, or soybeans alone. The ability to eat depends on the system of production and distribution remaining intact.

Thus, the relationship between nature and culture has undergone a complete reversal. Where natural disasters still cannot be predicted and planned for, their negative effect can be counteracted through a quick reallocation of goods. Not nature, but the system of production and distribution now poses the biggest threat to human civilization. The opposition between nature and culture has been replaced by a situation in which the social organization is the greatest potential obstacle to the use of nature.

Besides this potential horror, capitalism has also produced hunger and malnutrition as an automatic accompaniment to its accumulation process. During the last decade, more and more attention has been drawn to the number of hungry people in the world. The current recession has worsened this, but even before, there was a growing acknowledgement that hunger was widespread, and spreading. It is this crisis which Lappe and Collins address in their book, Food First : Beyond the Myth of Scarcity.

What most alarms them is the tendency to view human miseries as due to the limits which nature is imposing on civilization's growth. In countering these ideas, they show in great detail how it would be possible to provide everyone with more than enough food. The obstacle, however, is the restraint placed on production and distribution by the profit criteria of the food producers.

The ideology which they oppose is by no means without sophistication or superficial confirmation. The explanation usually goes something like this : the world's population has outstripped the earth's capacity to produce food, and not even the Green Revolution or Food Aid has been able to make much of a dent in the problem. Consequently, we must give up the goal of adequately feeding everyone, and instead, concentrate on solutions like birth control and setting limits to material growth, lest we deplete the earth at an even faster rate which will only exacerbate the problems. In the meantime, we need to steel ourselves and adjust to this new ethic.

For believers in "lifeboat ethics", as it is appropriately called, survival is ensured only for those most capable of weathering the turbulence. Not surprisingly, this means that the industrialized countries survive at the expense of the underdeveloped, the working population at the expense of the unemployed, the rich at the expense of the poor. The utopian aspirations of capitalism—to increase productivity indefinitely—are to be replaced with a more realistic attitude. While it may seem obvious that this "ethic" is a convenient means to blame nature for the plight of the unfortunate, the growing popularity of these ideas makes the publication of Food First important.

The book itself is organized into a series of 48 questions, each dealing with some aspect of the "lifeboat" ideology. Lappe and Collins point out, for instance, that high population density is not synonymous with a lack of food. "France has just about the same number of people for each cultivated acre as India". (p. 17) Nor does the problem stem from a lack of food production. "Half of Central America's agricultural land produces food for export while in several of its countries the poorest 50 percent of the population eat only half the necessary protein". (p. 15) In the same manner, the food scarcity is not imposed by nature. In the United States "the acreage allotment figure for 1970 was only 75 percent of that of 1967; less land was cultivated in 1970 than in 1948-1952. In both 1969 and 1970 the amount of grain that could have been grown, but was not, on land held out of production amounted to over seventy million metric tons—about double all the grain imported annually in the early seventies by the underdeveloped countries". (p. 23)

These few examples give a sense of the information contained in the book. With 466 pages of information, the authors present material on overpopulation, agricultural output, education and birth control, foreign aid programs, the spread of the desert, trade relations, livestock and feed grain production, technology and the small farmer, nutrition, and other topics; the purpose of which is to explain the contradictions between agricultural production and human needs. As such, they provide an overall description of the development of agriculture as well as a detailed rebuttal of the specific arguments which explain hunger as a result of the "crisis of overpopulation".

Agricultural production has become increasingly segmented, and large farms based upon export production have come to dominate the market. While this process began in colonial days, its development has been extremely rapid since World War II. The growth of the world market coincided with the interest in and possibility of profit-making through these channels. Different parts of the world began to specialize in one-crop, or monoculture, production, and thus became dependent on other parts of the world for their agricultural needs. The same process took place with the products of industry. Countries fostered agriculture for export as a means to gain money to buy other goods. Because the agricultural market was a lucrative one, corporations (and the multinationals in particular) took part in and encouraged this development, investing heavily in fertile lands, and, in the Third World, in cheap labor. In Ghana, for instance, "over half of [the] country's arable land is now planted with cocoa trees", (p. 185) and indeed, "over half of the 40 countries on the United Nations list of those most seriously affected by the food crisis of the 1970's depend on agricultural exports for at least 80 percent of their export earnings". (p. 186)

International agencies which provide credit and technical assistance to farmers have also strengthened this trend. The majority of this aid goes to large farmers or to the multinationals and their affiliates. In Tunisia, one "agricultural program provided credit only to those owning a certain minimum acreage—usually 125 acres, a large holding indeed in that country". (p. 117) This bias can also be seen with the Green Revolution; the use of new, high-yield seeds which were to inaugurate a sort of food heaven on earth. Only farmers with large amounts of capital could afford to buy new seeds each season or the mechanized equipment which their use often required. The large farms then set the norms for market prices and are better able to withstand price fluctuations. More and more land comes under the domination of the large farms.

The small farmers and peasants are unable to compete on the international markets, and the local markets are undercut when monoculture crops are imported. Because of these and other pressures, the ability of communities and nations to grow food for their own use is lost. In Mexico, due to the Green Revolution, "wheat yields tripled in only two decades", yet "there are also more hungry people than ever before". (p. 111) In West Malaysia, "by 1970, the bottom 20 percent of rural households had experienced a fall of over 40 percent in their average income since 1957, while the average income of the next 20 percent fell 16 percent. By contrast, the top 20 percent of rural households increased their mean income 21 percent". (p. 133)

The populations of the industrialized countries have, for the most part, been isolated from this process during the twentieth century, having experienced it a century earlier. But because these countries were able to industrialize, the landless could find jobs in manufacturing. The increased consumption of the industrialized countries has made them the focus of export agriculture. The peoples of the Third World have not been so lucky. Industry, by preference, invests near markets and where transportation and communication facilities are already established. This favors the industrialized countries. When industrial establishments are created in the underdeveloped countries they are often capital-intensive; and when they are labor-intensive, the work can be brutal. In either case, not enough employment is available to the population. Production on the land and in the factories has increased, but unemployment and hunger remain major problems.

On the basis of all this, Lappe and Collins conclude that "neither population growth nor the size of today's population is now the cause of hunger"; (p. 62) for while "there is scarcity... it is not a scarcity of food. The scarcity is of people who have either access to the means to grow their own food or the money to buy it". (p. 22) Overpopulation explains these problems only if it is assumed that the social structure is above examination.

Because of the inability of people to feed themselves, Lappe and Collins see a solution in local, diversified agriculture. The means to avoid a market-induced scarcity is to stop producing for the market. They suggest that such a reversal is possible within the prevailing social order, particularly for the Third World countries. National revolutions could set a priority on self-reliant agriculture, and thus circumvent the problems of landless peasants, farmlands owned only by a few, the need for foreign exchange, and vulnerability to price fluctuations.

Their own data, however, speaks against this solution. The underdeveloped countries are entangled in the market system to such a great extent that to withdraw from it would be akin to self-imposed genocide. Just to alter the agricultural techniques would require a massive quantity of new seeds, fertilizers, and machinery. In addition, those countries would then need to find a way to obtain the manufactured goods for which they now trade their crops. Lappe and Collins show with their statistics that it is conceivable for every country to feed its own population; but this is not the same as saying that this is a realistic possibility.

In part, the authors opt for their solution because they believe it to be a practical step which any part of the world can immediately embark on. Cuba and China are cited as the outstanding examples for the rest of the Third World. Cuba, however, has extensive trade relations with both Western Europe and the Soviet bloc, and this has not undergone any significant changes because of its interest in self-reliant agriculture. The Soviet Union's support of Cuba's sugar prices, far above world market levels, is the most important means by which a livable standard of living is maintained for the population.

China, on the other hand, was not completely dependent on the world market at the time of the 1949 Revolution, and the array of natural resources and land within its borders accounts for its stance of independence. For the rest of the Third World, it has been since World War II that international trade relations have become so entangled. Furthermore, only a few of the underdeveloped countries have a variety of resources to draw upon. From an economic point of view, neither China nor Cuba is a positive example for Third World countries—Cuba because it is not self-reliant and cannot become so in the near future, and China because its development began in circumstances which do not exist today in the other underdeveloped countries. And all this avoids discussion of what Lappe and Collins mean by "people's power" in those two countries.

The note which ends Food First is all the more surprising since the authors show so well that social causes underly the crisis of "overpopulation". Yet, in offering solutions, they reverse their position. The evil is not, as Lappe and Collins imply, the division of labor itself, but the system of production and distribution presently attached to it. Large-scale monoculture would be feasible, perhaps even preferable, if the vulnerabilities caused by the market system were eliminated and replaced with a guaranteed system of food allocation. Farmers would not be subject to market fluctuations, and those not attached to the land could be guaranteed their livelihood through an international system of commitments. In the same manner, natural disasters could be anticipated, and everyone insured that in case of disaster other parts of the world would automatically come to their aid with relief and materials for rebuilding. Whatever vulnerability people experience today stems from the social structure. To posit a technological solution by restructuring the division of labor, in the end, skirts the problem.

The authors' bias has one other negative aspect : they only present information which speaks against a large-scale and international division of labor. It would be useful to know what potentials this might contain if the social system was not structured according to profit criteria.

But regardless of the bias, the book contains much useful information. The authors document the social reasons for hunger and support their ideas with data drawn from official sources—the reports of governments and international agencies. As such, it is a contribution to the ongoing critique of capitalistically-induced misery. Levi-Strauss, in Tristes Tropique, told about the perpetual holocaust which primitive people were subjected to upon contact with Western civilization; Lappe and Collins tell of the holocaust which the no-longer primitive people of the Third World are now experiencing, and which we will all face should the market system collapse and we not have an alternative immediately at hand to replace it with.

Gary Roth
September 1978

  • 1Letter to Kugelman, 11 July 1868; Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence p. 251.