Food First Part 3




HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON                          1977



Chapter 2: But What About the Real Basketcases?

Question: Maybe in the world as a whole you are right, and there are, in principle, enough food-producing resources to go around. But don’t we find the greatest hunger in the heavily populated countries with the fast-growing populations? Aren’t there “basketcase” countries like Bangladesh that can’t possibly feed themselves?

Our Response: one sees so many maps with the “hungry countries” colored in a darker shade and reads so many references to the “hungry world” that it is hard to escape thinking of hunger as a place – usually as a place “over there.”

But think for a minute. Hungry people live in a country with the greatest food surpluses in history. Over 15% of all Americans ae eligible for food stamps. Yet nutritionists have testified that even with food stamps it is impossible to buy a nutritionally adequate diet. Stanislaus County, California, in the heart of some of America’s most productive farmland was nevertheless designated an official Hunger Disaster Area in1969. Thousands of jobless and underpaid residents went hungry because they did not have money to buy the food they could actually see growing in the fields.

  • Some nations very dense in people per acre also have adequately nourished populations.
  • Taiwan, where most are adequately nourished, feeds twice as many people per acre as famine-endangered Bangladesh.
  • China, where starvation was eradicated in only 25 years, has twice as many people for each cropped acre than India.
  • In Africa, south of the Sahara, one of the worst famine areas in the world, there are almost 2½ cultivated acres per inhabitant, more than in the United States or the Soviet Union and 6 to 8 times more than in China.
  • Zaire, a country with a smaller population per cultivated acre than most European and many Latin American countries, has the lowest protein per person intake in the world.
  • Latin America is a region of overall low population density. With 16% of the world’s cultivable land it has only 6% of the world’s population yet proportionately more hungry people than in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
  • Mexico, where most of the rural population is poorly fed, has more cultivated land per person than Cuba, where virtually no one is underfed.
  • Certainly there are countries in Latin America with both relatively high population density and widespread hunger – countries like Haiti and the Dominican Republic. But they are the exceptions.
  • As long as food is something bought and sold in a society with great income differences, the degree of hunger tells us nothing about the density of the population.


Bangladesh – a basketcase?

Bangladesh is often singled out as the archetype of a country whose population has simply overwhelmed its resources. When our studies of countries around the world began to suggest that there is probably no country where local food resources are not sufficient for the population, we decided to focus on Bangladesh – the “basketcase.” Frankly, we thought it might be an exception. It isn’t.

Bangladesh probably now produces enough to keep all its people sufficiently fed. But the rich eat several times more grain than the poor. They consume 30% more calories than the poor and twice the protein. Even more revealing is the fact that food hoarders smuggle as much as one third of all Bangaldesh’s marketed grain across the border into India to be sold for much-valued rupees at prices twice as high as Bangladesh. As in other countries, the poor do not eat no matter how much food there is. While many starved after the 1974 floods, an estimated 4 million tons of rice stacked up for want of buyers because, in the words of National Geographic, “the vast majority were too poor to buy it.” much of the rice was grown by the very hungry who needed it. In order to pay off high-interest debts to moneylenders, they had to sell at harvest time when prices were at their lowest. Forced later to borrow again to buy at speculators’ prices and in competition with higher-income city dwellers in India, they obviously faced increased chances of even greater hunger the following year.

  • Bangladesh has twice the cultivated land per person as Taiwan. Its rich alluvial soils give it cropland second to none other in the world.
  • Bangladesh has adequate potential water supplies even in the dry season, an ideal climate for year-round cultivation allowing for three harvests a year of rice, and inland fishery resources that, according to one Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) research group, are “possibly the richest in the world.”

Why is the extraordinary food potential of Bangladesh unrealized? Not because there are too many people but because an elite few prevent the majority from having access to the country’s resources. Without access to these resources, the majority of the people not only do not benefit from them but their initiative and energies do not go into making those resources more productive.

  • The fishing areas are controlled by absentee owners who are satisfied to sell a small quantity of fish at high prices to a few well-off consumers.
  • Cooperative fishing by fishermen, who know that acquiring the knowledge to increase fish yields would benefit themselves, could provide employment to hundreds of thousands of landless families and an excellent protein source for millions.
  • Bangladesh could well follow the example of Taiwan; through small-scale inland fisheries its fish production has increased 8 times in only 25 years.
  • About ¼ of Bangladesh’s farmland is operated by sharecroppers who must take all the risks and give most of what they grow to the absentee landlords.
  • Only 7% of the country’s farms take up 31% of the farmland. The larger landholdings tend to be less productive per acre and provide a livelihood for fewer people than those of small farmers.
  • The large landowners frequently plant nonfood crops such as jute for export instead of rice. While the many go without rice, the few earn foreign exchange to pay for an imported life-style.
  • About two thirds of the rural population have no land at all or less than 2½ acres per household.
  • Those with little or no land must depend on meager wags for seasonal work on large farms. Controlling no food producing resources, they cannot store food and therefore are particularly vulnerable to adverse times.
  • When floods or droughts deprive them of work altogether, speculative food prices due to hoarding shoot up from 200% to 500%.

Seasoned agricultural economist René Dumont reported during the 1974 famine that the richest landholders in Bangladesh stood in line all night at land registry offices in order to buy land that the hungry, mortgaged small farmers were selling as a last resort. As a 1974 report from the University of Dacca explained, “Fundamentally hoarding, blackmarketing and smuggling, although decried as ‘anti-social,’ are only rational behaviours of ‘profit maximizers,’ the heroes of private enterprise, in situations where the structure of command over scarce goods is unrelated to the structure of needs.” Competing with each other for the scarce resources not monopolized by the rich, millions of small farmers, sharecroppers, and landless laborers in Bangladesh are prevented from joining in collective action to improve the country’s food-growing resources. Yet only by common effort could the people of Bangladesh build and maintain the irrigation and drainage canals and embankments necessary to convert water from the constant flood threat it now represents to the extraordinary resource it could be.

For such reasons, a 1975 FAO report on Bangladesh concludes, “A policy of really drastic land distribution might promote both production and equity.” Cooperative farming structures could overcome the danger that redistribution would break up the land into units too small to be efficiently farmed. Greater production would result because for the fist time the entire rural population would sense that the work necessary to unleash the land’s great potential would benefit them and not the landlord or moneylender.

  • Even though one third to one half of the country’s cultivated area could be irrigated at virtually no financial expense, only about 5% is actually irrigated.
  • Current rice yields are only ½ the world average and a mere 15% of what has been shown to be possible on experimental plots in Bangladesh itself.

Bangladesh, then, is not a hopeless basketcase. As we found in every other supposedly hopeless country, there is no insurmountable natural obstacle to its people feeding themselves. Their future need not be some combination of starvation and debilitating and degrading charity. The key obstacle is the present power of a few to postpone an urgent social reconstruction.

Chapter 3: The Price Scare?

Leave a Comment