2 August 1980
... being the book that destroyed the myths about food scarcity causing the world's hunger.
Food First: The Myth of Scarcity
by Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins (1977)
UK: Souvenir Press (hardback) £8.95 US: Ballantine Books (paperback) $2.75
* See N.l. No.55 - Special cartoon adaptation of the book.
Food First is the classic debunker of myths about world hunger. Men like Garrett Hardin had compared the earth to a lifeboat where there isn't enough food to go around. ‘What happens if you share space in a lifeboat?' asked Dr Hardin. ‘The boat is swamped, and everyone drowns. Complete justice, complete catastrophe.'
Frances Moore LappE, author of the bestselling Diet For A Small Planet and Joseph Collins, who cooperated on Global Reach - The Power of the Multinational Corporation proved, point by point, that the ‘lifeboat ethic' was not just a moral obscenity but factually upside down.
To begin with, there is no shortage of food. The most absurd tragedy in the world is that there should be so many malnourished when there is more than enough food for everyone.
Europe's major food headaches relate to her well-known topographical features, the ‘butter mountains', ‘powdered milk mountains', ‘olive oil lakes' and ‘wine lakes'. At this Mad Hatter's tea party, legislation is passed to force farmers to feed back dried milk to their cows, and across the Atlantic President Carter pays Prairie farmers not to farm a fifth of their land, to keep up grain prices.
The clue to this Alice in Wonderland world lies in that word: prices. Having enough air to breathe is a basic human right. Unfortunately, having enough food to eat is not. But both are essential life-supports. People's hunger is seen as a business opportunity - not an obligation to be met. For food, unlike air, is only available if you can buy it or grow it. It seems self-evident that hunger will not be cured until more people have more money or more land.
But wealth and land distribution are anathema to the rich. They prefer to look for solutions through highyeilding ‘miracle seeds' or pesticides or mechanisation that doubles production. But the poorer farmers cannot afford the new technology. Only the richer farmers benefit - making the competition even tougher for those who are hungry. It's left to Lappe and Collins to point out the irrelevance of producing more food when it's the money to buy it with that's lacking.
Perhaps it's land that is scarce? ‘In most countries where people are hungry,' say the authors, ‘large land holders own most of the land. A study of 83 countries showed that slightly more than 3 per cent of all landholders control a staggering 79 per cent of all land.'And landowners with 70 per cent of the land in Colombia farmed only 6 per cent of it: the rest was held for prestige or as an investment.
The usual justification for large farms is that efficiency increases with size. Food First blows away this myth too. World Bank analyses show that small farms, acre for acre, are three to fourteen times more productive. So inequality, not ‘justice', invites ‘catastrophe'.
The most pernicious myth of all is that land scarcity is caused by too many poor. LappE and Collins respond that France has as many people per cultivated acrea as India, and one doesn't associate France with a lack of food. Some family planners point to soil-erosion on marginal land farmed by the poor. But who farms vulnerable soil by choice? The poor were often forced onto hillsides not by their children, but by local elites or multinationals hogging the best land for luxury export crops - like cut flowers for the US. An increase in cotton production in the Sahel prompted a French nutritionalist to observe: ‘If people are starving it's not for want of cotton.'
The lesson is clear: it's not bounty that the poor need from the rich, but a change in the balance of power so that they have a fighting chance to grow themselves enough to eat.
Food First is probably the best starting point available for any newcomer to development issues. But it's more than a basic,text: as a cornucopia of facts, examples, anecdotes and ideas on how to help, it's invaluable for any activist. And - a rare virtue in this field - it's so well-written that you may not want to put it down, except to join in the campaign for justice.
This article is from
the August 1980 issue
of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription.
Get a free trial now »