Food First Part 5




HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON                          1977



Chapter 4: More People: A Thinner Slice for Everyone?

Question: As high birth rates eat up the economic growth of a country, won’t its total production necessarily be divided up into smaller and smaller shares? And won’t less economic growth mean that people will become poorer and less able to buy food?

Our Response: First, this question assumes that the growth rate of the economy of a country, as measured by standards such as Gross National Product (GNP), reflects the welfare of the people. But such measures become meaningless when one learns, for example, that Mexico in the early 1970s was declared “developed” because its per capita GNP had passed the magic $600 mark. At the same time, however, both the nutritional level and the real income of the rural majority in Mexico have been steadily declining.

Second, if this thesis is right, we would expect to find high birth rates correlated with low economic growth rates. What in fact do we find? One extensive study compares the population and economic growth rates of underdeveloped countries for the twenty-year period, 1950-1970. The study shows, for example, that although Nicaragua has one of the fastest growing populations, its per capita national production grew faster than that of countries like Chile and Malawi whose populations are among the slower growing of the underdeveloped countries. Examples of countries showing a negative growth in overall production per person could be found among those with both slower and faster growing populations. Simply put, there seems to be no clear relationship between national production per person and the growth rate of the population. If anything, the faster growing populations appear to have a slight edge.

It may seem to be self-evident that the more people there are, the less there is of everything for each person – until we remember that it is people who grow food and create all other goods.

Chapter 5: Are People a Liability or a Resource?

Question: Certainly no one can deny that there are too many people in relation to the jobs available in underdeveloped countries. Economist Barbara Ward has likened the urban migration resulting from rural unemployment to a “tidal wave, a hurricane Camille of country people.” For her, “it is not so much immigration as inundation.” Robert McNamara, President of the World Bank, has described the growing number of unemployed as “‘marginal men,’ the wretched strugglers for survival on the fringes of farm and city.”

Isn’t the tragedy of unemployment-related hunger simply that a long-needed revolution in agricultural production is inevitably leaving behind an increasing number of unskilled, illiterate people? Haven’t their numbers long surpassed what agriculture can constructively absorb? Aren’t these modernizing countries condemned to growing numbers of surplus people left behind without jobs and thus without income for food?

Our Response: Terms like “tidal wave” and “inundation” can readily lead us to believe that we are witnessing a natural and inevitable process. Dramatic metaphors can jolt us by the very power of their imagery, but they can also lead us away from real understanding.

This question reflects several widely held beliefs that we have found to be myths.


MYTH ONE: Agriculture in underdeveloped countries is held back because there are just too many people in the countryside to be productively put to work.

If too many workers per acre really stood in the way of production, wouldn’t countries that have a more productive agriculture have fewer workers per acre than their less successful neighbors? Yet, what do we find? Japan and Taiwan, both thought of as agriculturally successful, have more than twice as many agricultural workers per acre than the Philippines and India. The value of production per acre in Japan is seven times that of the Philippines and ten times that of India. The overall trend, in fact, seems to show a positive relationship between the number of workers on a unit of land and the level of agricultural output on that unit of land. This may be hard for Americans to accept because we are taught to measure productivity in terms of how few people it takes to grow food. Such a measure makes no sense at all in underdeveloped countries with vast, untapped human labor resources.

  • When China attempted to increase production utilizing its human labor potential, it found that it could gainfully triple or even quadruple the labor input per acre.

The World Bank has said that if countries like India could attain Japan’s level of Labor intensity – two workers per hectare (2.5 acres) – their agriculture could absorb all the labor force expected by 1985. The significant difference, of course, is that countries like Japan, Taiwan, and China have developed labor-intensive farming that productively employs the additional labor; India and the Philippines have not.

  • A large rural population is far from the handicap it is often perceived to be.
  • A recent survey of African rural development efforts concludes that many schemes had failed because of scarce agricultural labor.


MYTH TWO: Since agriculture cannot absorb any more people, the overflow from rural areas must go to the cities where new jobs in industry must be created for them.

It was exactly this analysis of the problem that prompted both the neglect of agriculture and the promotion of industrialization by development planners during the 1950s and 1960s. The results? A lot of capital investment but remarkably few new industrial jobs.

  • The percentage of workers employed in manufacturing dropped from 8.5% to 7.6% of the total labor force between 1900 and 1950 in underdeveloped countries.
  • Between 1950 and 1964, the Indian government increased the capital invested in large-scale manufacturing fifteen-fold. Yet during the same period, the number of workers employed by such manufacturing only slightly more than doubled.
  • 257 multinational corporations studied in Latin America employ less than one half the number of people per unit of sales as do local companies.
  • Many economists have come to recognize that a new modern factory employing a couple hundred persons might well be putting thousands of local craftsmen out of business.

China has been able to reduce the percentage of its workforce in full-time agricultural jobs to about 54% in contrast to the 70% to 85% in most underdeveloped countries. Likewise in Taiwan farm labor is now only 30% of the total. This was accomplished, not by creating urban industries, but by developing small factories and workshops throughout the countryside to make farm implements and basic consumer goods. China’s large rural, but nonagricultural, population also represents a sizable reserve labor force for agriculture – on hand to deal with peak season farm labor bottlenecks that in many countries are used to justify premature and costly mechanization.

Myth Three: Population growth is a tremendous burden to the struggling economies of the Third World countries since it means having to scare up more jobs when 15% to 30% of the population is already without work and much of the so-called employed are really underemployed. The result is increasing numbers of half-starved, marginal people living outside the economy.

In 16th century England and 19th century Scotland a shift in land use led directly to the appearance of “too many people.” The landed gentry had decided that sheep would be more profitable than farming. Sheep, however, need a lot of land and only a few shepherds. Land, therefore, was “enclosed” and thousands of farming peasants were shut out.

  • The overpopulation existed of course, only in relation to a sheep-based agricultural economy.
  • The total population of England in the 16th century was less than in any one of several present-day English cities.
  • Colonial powers similarly created such marginal people by reducing highly diversified agricultural systems to single crops – monocultures on which the most profit could be made in foreign markets.
  • Converting whole countries into production sites for one or two crops meant that planting and harvests were no longer staggered throughout the year.
  • Employment opportunities were therefore limited to the cycle of the one or two main export crops.

Once the livelihood of millions of self-provisioning farmers, agriculture is becoming the profit base of influential commercial entrepreneurs – traditional landed elites, city-based agricultural speculators, and foreign corporations. These new agricultural entrepreneurs use profits both to enlarge their landholdings at the expense of the small farmer and the landless and to mechanize production at the expense of the laborer’s job.

Displacing tenants and laborers with machines means a larger marketable harvest and more profit for the commercial cultivator – in addition to freedom from the “management problem” of a sizable underpaid labor force. Replacing people with machines in countries with immense untapped labor resources is not, of course, of social value. The value accrues only to the individual operator who can use machines to maximize the profit made on each laborer. As this process proceeds, however, all the outsider sees is more unemployment and therefore concludes that there are just too many people.

We are made to think of people as an economic liability when, in reality, all the wealth of a country begins and ends with people – with human labor. The economic success of a nation does not depend so much on rich natural resources as on how effectively its people can be motivated and their labor utilized. People appear as a liability only in a certain type of economic system: one in which economic success is not measured by the well-being of all the people; one in which production is increasingly monopolized by a few; and one in which technology is used to exclude people from the production process so as to maximize the profit the landlord makes on each worker. People are not born marginal.

Chapter 6: People Pressure on the Ecosystem?

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