4

THE MYTH OF THE FOOD FAMINE

 

In his Population Bomb(1968), the environmental pessimist, Paul Ehrlich, predicted that millions of people would be starving to death in the 1970’s and billions by the end of the century. This was doomsday talk of apocalyptic dimensions, certainly the end of the world as we know it. The Stanford hysteria-monger even went on Johnny Carson’s talk show to offer an even money wager that Great Britain would not exist by the year 2000.

 

There is a silver lining to the darkest cloud. The world was reeling from the oil crisis (that was artificially produced) and ridden by fears of running out of oil – subsequently found to be no more likely than stone age men running out of stones. But this climate of fear about running out of oil made Ehrlich’s predictions about running out of food even more believable. Had not this Stanford genius demonstrated that the population explosion would mean that there would not be enough food to go around?  It was soon to be a case of saying, “Move over you oil-rich Arabs for the food-rich Australians.” If you were a lucky farmer in those days, it was a case of buying up as much farmland as you possible could for the unprecedented bonanza in food prices that was just around the corner.

 

 The food prices did change quite dramatically, not upward however, but downward. In the 1980’s food prices kept falling so sharply that many farms in the United States began to go out of business. The nation became obsessed with a debate about the tragedy of the disappearing farms. In all, 53 million acres of land was retired from agriculture during the 1980’s and went back into woodlands.  This would surely put the price of food through the roof – or did it?  No, the U.S. was to become awash with the greatest surplus of food and fibre it had ever seen, only matched by the mountains of surplus agricultural products being dumped around the world by the subsidized European producers. And what about the hundreds of millions of people expected to be starving in the developing world? Their food production was to treble, and they were to have less rather than more people who were not getting enough to eat.

 

What happened?  It was a phenomena known as “the Green Revolution,” and it had nothing, as the name might suggest, to do with the Greens or the environmental doomsayers. It represented the greatest advance in agricultural technology since the move from hunter-gatherer to agricultural settlement about 10,000 years ago. The father of the Green Revolution was a young North Dakota farmer by the name of Norman Borlung. After receiving his doctorate in agricultural science, he went out to teach high-yield agriculture to third world countries on three continents over a period of over 40 years. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and 45 honorary doctorates, he is widely credited with saving more human lives than any man who has ever lived. Some even think he is the greatest human being alive on this planet today. It was Borlung’s work which led to new varieties of grain that quadrupled world grain production within 30 years. He both sponsored and inspired research into rust resistant varieties of wheat and varieties of rice which increased crop yield four-fold. This led on to other plant breeding technologies and to a whole series of advancements in irrigation technologies, fertilizers, pest control, weed control, and other efficiencies that changed the face of agriculture forever. Food production in both developed and undeveloped countries doubled and then tripled.  Food prices kept falling so much that it is now hard to believe that today food prices around the world (including Australia) are only 1/3rd of what they were just 46 years ago. It’s all in the statistics!

 

Australia lags a few years behind the agricultural trends in the United States. It seems that they are over their debate and their angst about the disappearing farms. Food is not dearer because so many little inefficient farms in marginal areas have disappeared. Food is cheaper because they have disappeared. To understand this history and these trends is to understand the debate and the angst about the disappearing farms in Australia. They are being wiped out by the inexorable progress of humanity toward less farmers and cheaper food. You can take it as a general rule that the less food growers a society supports per capita to maintain its food supply, the better off that society has become. Those who cannot understand these trends, or worse, spend their efforts trying to resist them, are yesterday’s men who cannot see through the fog of their environmental pessimism.