World Food Crisis:

Political maneuvers keep food from starving millions

The Harvard-Radcliffe Hunger Action Project is a group of students, faculty and community people working to clarify the complex issues that surround the food crisis. Together with college and community groups from around the Northeast, we have formed the Northeast Hunger Action Alliance.

Despite our different personal perspectives, we all agree that the food crisis can be truly understood only within the context of the political and economic power structures that presently exist. All agree that present immediate action to feed the hungry must lead soon to profound social change, or unprecedented world-wide famine will come to pass.

At the conclusion of the World Food Conference held last November in Rome, Senator Hubert Humphrey wrote:

The great central problem of our time is hunger.

Our grain reserves are almost gone.

Rates of population have begun to pull ahead of agricultural production in many countries.

Drought already has brought starvation to many people.

We are, in Secretary-General Waldheim's words, "face to face with a global emergency."

Others agree that the magnitude of the danger of famine is without parallel. The Second Report to the Club of Rome, Mankind at the Turning Point, declares that the starvation of millions if not billions is inevitable, and that we shall see social chaos on a global scale within the century.

Senator Mark Hatfield speaks of hunger as "the greatest threat to this nation and to the stability of the entire world," judging that "hunger and famine will do more to destabilize this world...than all the atomic weaponry possessed by the big powers," affirming the absolute centrality of the elimination of famine, not only for the preservation of stability, but for the survival of the human race itself.

As fears mount and the desperation of world leaders grows, Professor Roger Revelle calculates that the world can produce enough food for 38 to 48 billion people; and the London Economist points out that "if the arable land of our planet were cultivated as efficiently as farms in Holland, the planet could feed 67 billion people." Clearly, in the words of Edgar Owens, of the Agency for International Development, "the world is not yet confronted with the Malthusian apocalypse."

In his article, The Great World Crisis, Geoffrey Barraclough wrote similarly of the food situation: "The first necessity, in discussing the food question, is to get rid of the misconceptions in which it is currently bogged down. Two myths, in particular, have befogged the whole issue. The first is the persistent legend that food shortages are the consequence of inexorable population pressures. The second is that there is an over-all shortage of food stuffs. Neither will bear serious scrutiny..."

The thrust of Barraclough's argument, and the thrust of the arguments made by a growing number of other historians, politicians, economists, and demographers, is that we have the capacity to deal with the problem of food if we will face it squarely. What we may lack is the political will to act.

The immediate history of the present crisis is one of lost opportunities. The production of basic food grains--corn, wheat, rice, barley, and oats--totalled one billion metric tons in 1973, enough to adequately feed four billion people if distributed equally, and the March 15, 1974 report to the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, shows that there was a world-wide surplus of grains as recently as 1972. It shows grain production recovering in the years between 1968 and 1971, making up a cumulative deficit of over 100 million metric tons, which had resulted from disastrous harvests in 1961, 1963, and 1965, 1971 produced a world record crop, with a world-wide surplus of 29 million metric tons over projected harvests.

In 1972, the steady gains of the previous four years reversed. A shortfall of 15 million tons in Russia, nine million tons in India, and five million tons in Australia, was enough to pinch supplies around the globe. Food production adequate for all, a possibility seemingly within our grasp in 1971 was suddenly beyond our reach.