New Internationalist

No Harvest Festival

November 1980

The US grows more food than it eats. And transforming overproduction from a vice into a virtue has been a big problem for the US Department of Agriculture for more than 30 years. When the silos are bursting with perishable grain and the domestic demand for hamburger buns is fully satisfied, overseas handouts are sometimes the only answer.

PL480 was the piece of legislation drafted in 1954 to help US farmers export their surpluses in the form of `food aid’. When PL480 was upgraded into the 1966 Food for Peace Act, 60 million acres of US farmland were still being kept fallow for fear that rural areas would `suffocate’ beneath mountains of unsold produce. But the aid and export programmes took effect as new markets were carved out of a starving globe. In 1972 worldwide famine created unprece­dented demand for US grain, with 32 million tons going to the Soviet Union alone. By 1974 US agricultural exports topped $21 billion - one-sixth of the world’s total. `The Arabs have the crude, but we have the food,’sneered mid-west American farmers during the seventies heyday of PL480.

But for how long can the US rely on world hunger to keep bumper harvests profitable? Not forever, argues Armando Malay of the University of the Philippines. While PL480 has been `an excellent camouflage for chronic aver-abundance,’ the energy crisis may finally expose the weaknesses of US agriculture. Malay’s study on How the US exports its agri­cultural crisis to the Third World, points out that US farmers are now less energy­efficient than their present counterparts in the Third World. Petrol-guzzling farm machinery consumes 10 calories of fuel energy for every one produced in food. And fertiliser is being tipped onto some Texas farmland at the rate of 800 pounds per acre. As doses get higher, returns get lower. Ten tons of nutrient can increase yields by 100 tons on barren Third World fields, but on over-rich US rangelands extra benefits are cut by 75 per cent.

Big harvests have not brought cheap food. During the seventies US food prices increased at nine per cent a year - twice as fast as in the late sixties. Foreign consumers are now faced with massive food bills. Egypt devoured $700 million worth of US farm imports in 1979. And, argues Malay, with a million extra people to feed each year, `the vicious cycle of intensified poverty’ may make full payment impossible. Also dashed is the US hope that it would reap the benefits of increased Third World food production by getting bigger orders for other consumer goods. Its hungry clients are neither rich nor self-sufficient.

The US Department of Agriculture has even come to lament the monopolis­ation of ‘agri-business’ by US firms. Four companies make 78 per cent of US tractors, while two firms take 74 per cent of the corn herbicide market. With no.price competition, costs are predicted to mount even faster. It seems, concludes Malay, that free enterprise alone won’t save US agriculture.

See N.I. issue No 82, December 1979

This column was published in the November 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 093

New Internationalist Magazine issue 093
Issue 093

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