Science in Christian Perspective


Limiting Factors in World Food Supply and Distribution
Department of Horticulture
Oregon State University
Corvallis, Oregon


From: JASA 26 (September 1974): 115-118.

Improper distribution of food is the cause of hunger in the world. Food production can be increased to meet world needs but is controlled more by cash demand than human need. Poor people are hungry because they have no money to buy food rather than because there is not enough food. Lack of a minimal education is the usual cause of poverty, so removing that limitation would shift purchasing power, which in turn would cause shifts in food production and distribution. Food production potential far exceeds the need in the foreseeable future, even assuming a continued increase in population. Man's increasing dominion over the earth makes him more responsible for the proper use and conservation of its resources, if he is to pass on to his children a livable planet.


Hayes' recent review of Ehrlich's book, The Population Bomb, and earlier discussions in the Journal ASA concerning Ehrlich's predictions and those of other prophets of doom, leaves me as an agricultural scientist a bit uneasy. Many of the "authoritative" statements being made on population and food supply these days are by non-agriculturists or instant ecologists. Christians are getting the blame for domination and exploitation of the earth by their implied interpretation of scripture, This is not my interpretation of scripture, but rather the opposite. We have indeed dominated the earth and subdued a portion of it, but as Christians we must conserve and protect as well as use its resources and try to pass along a better world to our children. The assumption that population per se causes an irrevocable reduction in environmental quality is utter nonsense. For example, London with its 12 million people has possibly the cleanest environment of any big city, yet only a dozen years ago it was one of the dirtiest. The environment was improved not by reducing the population but by a commitment to changing the specific human activities which were causing the problems. The further assumption that hundreds of millions of people will die of starvation during the next decade is based on unwarranted extrapolations of current increases in population and world food production. The fact that food production never greatly exceeds the cash demand does not mean that production could not be increased dramatically. And since food increases are required for increases in population, only those countries which can increase food supply will increase their populations. Those which cannot increase food supplies will have starvation during this rather than the next decade, but at a level far below the predictions.

The fact that there is hunger in the world is ample evidence that either food supply or distribution is inadequate. To get at the causes and suggest solutions requires a careful and orderly study. We must first know the facts about the situation; then, on the basis of these facts, we must identify as clearly as possible the major problems. Finally we must examine the alternatives for possible solutions and decide which alternatives are most satisfactory.

Borrowing from Blackman's restricted concept of limiting factors for plant growth, a more generalized view of the concept can be made to apply to any system or process, either physical or biological. My generalized restatement of this principle of limiting factors is as follows: The operation of a process, reaction, system or organization proceeds at the rate imposed by the most limiting factor essential to the overall process. When the principal limitation is eliminated, the process proceeds at nearer optimum but may in turn be limited by some new factor which now  becomes critical. Methodical elimination of all limiting factors which can he altered results in an optimized system. If two factors are nearly equally limiting, then both must be altered to obtain a rate change in the process.

Food Distribution

To apply this principle to food supply and distribution, the basic facts of the situation should be stated:

    1. Most of the hunger in the world exists where the people also are the poorest (Asia, Africa and South America).
    2. Population density per se is not related to hunger. High density countries such as Japan, Netherlands and U.K. are   not hungry, while some low density countries of Africa and South America are hungry. Seventy percent of the world's people live in urban areas on about 3% of the land.
    3. Large food surpluses exist in North America, Europe, and Oceania and some surpluses exist in other areas of the world.

From these gross facts we must now identify the problem, i.e., decide what ought to be as contrasted to what now exists. Obviously, the problem is unequal distribution of food as related to people. Let us assume that it is easier to transport food than people to achieve an optimum balance. The facts listed above also tell us that poverty and hunger are related, as was pointed out by Simpson12 in an article "The dimensions of world poverty." He states that distribution of food both within a country or between countries is limited by the purchasing power of the people. This last is important because it identifies one of the causes of the problem.

If poverty rather than food supply or land resources is the cause of hunger, these are the alternative solutions:

    1. Get money from the rich and give to the poor (e.g., "free" food programs).
    2. Teach poor people how to produce more food locally.
    3. Find and eliminate the cause of poverty.

The last alternative seems best because it gets to the primary cause of improper food distribution. We are still seeking specific limiting factors, the elimination of which would optimize the balance between food supply and people. Of the factors related to poverty, those political, sociocultural, religious, or educational origin are most evident. All of these may have a bearing upon poverty, but the lack of education appears to me to be the most important. In the countries of Asia, Africa and South America where hunger is greatest, illiteracy rates are also very high and are the probable cause of much of the poverty. The long run solution through education, however, awaits some changes in political, cultural and religious areas, because these institutions in many cases are responsible for illiteracy and poverty in the first place. But given the proper climate for self-determination, these people still must be fed until they can gain the education needed to obtain earning power. In this regard the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations recently made the excellent suggestion that surplus food from affluent countries be used in place of money to help pay for development projects in countries which are not able to import food. The use of food as currency to build roads, schools, irrigation dams, etc. would be a lasting monument to the food eaten. The effect of such a program would be increased self-sufficiency both in food production and technology in the poor nations.

The assumption that population increase per se causes an irrevocable reduction in environmental quality is utter nonsense.

Thus the -imbalance between food and people is largely one of economics governed by the law of supply and demand. Human need, however, must be distinguished from cash demand, the latter of which regulates world food supply. Most or all of the hungry nations of the world use part of their agricultural land to produce non-food crops for cash export. Ceylon exports rubber and tea, grown on land that could feed some of its hungry people. In talking recently with a graduate student in Economies from India, I learned that he had written a master's thesis on the economies of san hemp, an important export crop of India. When I asked him why Indian farmers were not using all of their land to produce food, he replied that they could not sell that much food. He candidly admitted that many of his Asian brothers were hungry, but since they had no money for food, their farmers could not afford to grow crops to give away. They therefore raised crops for which there was a cash market.

Several factors should be mentioned as they relate to education and the food problem. It is widely known that in India cattle and other animals eat plants which could be used for human food, yet these animals are not used as food. This is a problem stemming from religious beliefs, but there is evidence that education is changing this view. Another indirect effect of education is that it will dramatically increase the effectiveness of voluntary population control measures. It has been erroneously assumed that population control in rich affluent nations would release food for the hungry nations. Only population control in a hungry nation will help the food supply there. Reduced population growth in a rich nation simply results in a reduction in the food produced there. Education of the hungry and poor can bring about important changes in the economic concept of family size, which in turn can facilitate population control. For centuries farmers in Asia considered a large family an asset because of the hand labor required to plant and care for the crops. Recent research, however, showed that direct mechanical seeding of rice was as good as transplanting individual seedlings by hand. This single innovation plus some education to put it to use could be a significant incentive to reduce family size throughout Asia.

Recent articles in the Journal ASA and elsewhere indicate needed limitations on human population growth in the generations ahead. The main thrust of these pronouncements hinges on these assumptions:

    1. Food supplies are running short and will he critical before AD 2000.
    2. Water will be critically short, both for agriculture and domestic use.
    3. Environmental pollution on a world-wide scale is threatening many species including man.
    4. The combined effects of the above listed items will mean starvation and misery for hundreds of millions of people beginning early in the next decade.

Implicit in many of these writings edged in black is that man is multiplying faster than is the knowledge with which to solve his problems. Yet with each population doubling we have a 16fold increase in technology. The tacit admission that Malthus was right is to admit that man has no better equipment to solve his problems than have the animals of the forest.
Regarding world food potential, Journal ASA readers deserve at least one opinion from the field of agricultural science. After all we in agriculture who are solving current problems should be in a good position to anticipate and thus avoid future problems.

Consider these facts. U.S. production of foods could increase by 60 million tons merely by putting to work land already developed but not in use. India now wastes 40% of its food through preventable losses between harvest and final consumption. Elimination of this loss would add nearly 40 million tons of food grains annually. China appears no longer to have widespread hunger. Developing countries such as Pakistan, Turkey, Mexico and Indonesia have made dramatic gains in production in recent years to the extent that some crops are available for export for the first time. Historically, the Philippines have had to import 600,000 tons of rice to feed its people, yet today they are exporting rice to other nations.
The gloom and doom statements of non-agriculturists such as Borgstrom, Ehrlich, and the Paddock brothers are part fact and part fiction and they fail to distinguish between the two. Their estimations of agriculture's capacity to produce food is grossly in error. The following statement on potential production was prepared in 1969 for a talk given before the O.S.U. Chapter of the Human Ecology Society.

The imbalance between food and people is largely one of economics governed by the law of supply and demand.

World Food Potential

Poverty and food distribution. The relationship between poverty and food supply was pointed out by Simpson12, who arbitrarily set the poverty level at below $300/cap/yr. On this basis, 64% of the world's people are in poverty, S of whom live in India, Pakistan, Indonesia and China. He asserted that distribution of food within a country or between countries depends upon transport facilities and also is limited by the purchasing power of the people. World food production stands at about 102% of minimum caloric need12.

Thus, distribution rather than production is the main problem. It is unlikely that production will greatly exceed cash demand because of the severe depressing effect which surpluses have on prices.

Food increase in hungry nations. As stated by Brady, the primary elements are technology plus social, political, economic, cultural and religious factors. While technology won't work without a balance of the above factors, the world cannot feed itself without a balanced agricultural technology. Our western technology can't be directly transferred to other nations, but our techniques for getting facts and solving problems can be exported4. Putting together a balanced "package of practices" has worked well, in which varieties, fertilizers, weed control, machinery, etc., plus a good agricultural extension service have resulted in dramatic increases in yield. For example, Turkey bought 20,000 tons of a new hybrid wheat from Mexico and asked AID. for help in growing it. Twelve extension specialists from Oregon State University were sent over to work on the project. The yields were so remarkable that it is cited as one of the most successful production increases ever obtained through Extension demonstrations in so short a time.

New varieties of short-straw, high-yielding wheat and rice, together with better practices and more fertilizer, resulted in record yields in Pakistan, India and Ceylon in 1969, In a recent news release, India's Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, said, "I feel confident that India will be able to stop importing wheat in about three years." In fact, food shortages could be eliminated in most countries today if losses in handling, transport and storage could he saved. Carter5 cites the case in which India presses the oil from soy, cotton, and peanuts, leaving a residue containing 50% protein. The 2.5 million tons of this residue is not, however, used as human food. This potential should be used.

Between 1960 and 1967 world food production rose about 20% and per capita production rose slightly overall. Yet per capita production in underdeveloped countries dropped between 1964 and 1966 causing concern that the food battle was lost. However, during the last few years, dramatic increases were achieved in many of the hungry nations, increases which were directly attributed to better varieties along with good farming practices.

Present production capacity. Production in developed countries can be easily doubled by multiple cropping and by optimizing other inputs"1,9,13. Underdeveloped nations can achieve 5- to 10-fold increases by using presently available technology. The tropical crop, coffee, was recently found3 to produce more than 10 times the usual yield by using superior varieties, high density spacing, fertilizers and other good practices. In Oregon, high density plantings of vegetable crops and fruit trees have resulted in 5- to 8-fold yield increases.

Much protein fond can be produced by feeding ruminant livestock on straw, using urea as a source of nitrogen11". The use of 127,000 metric tons of urea in this way was equal to 813,000 tons of soybean meal as stock feed. This type of protein production is of great value because primary human food is not used as animal feed.

The gloom and doom statements of non-agriculturists are part fact and part fiction, and they fail to distinguish between the two. Their estimates of agriculture's capacity to produce food is grossly in error.

Underveloped potential. The breeding of highyield, high-protein grains and seed crops has great potential for providing people with more and higher quality food. For example, a wild oat species has been found2 that contains 10 to 12% more protein than standard varieties. Corn with a high lysine endosperm is being bred in Mexico for tropical climates and is being tested in South America, India, Thailand, and Africa. Another potential source of high quality food is from leaf proteins. Hodgson10 points out that the yield of leaf protein per acre greatly exceeds that of seed protein and that leaf protein also is of higher quality. Research shows that leaves of some species already have the desired quality without an extensive breeding program.

The oceans still remain to be tapped for food. At present, only 1.1% of their potential is being used8. World value of sea foods is only $4.65 billion, compared to $236.00 billion for land foods. Whether a significant increase from the oceans is economically feasible is being debated.

Much research remains to be done to bring the billions of acres of humid tropics into production. This will come slowly but recent work indicates promise. One big advantage of the tropics is that 5 to 7 crops can be grown annually as compared to 1 or 2 in temperate zones.

Despite many problems, the world's people can be fed. A recent report (December, 1968) by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicates that by 1985 the developed nations will have massive surpluses which they cannot use and which the developing nations will not absorb. Some obvious adjustments are needed. In 1971 our own U.S. wheat acreage was cut by another 8 million acres to prevent piling up more surpluses. Unequal distribution of food will be corrected ultimately by educating the poor. Both hunger and poverty appear to be related to lack of education. Education would accomplish two major things: a) It would provide better earning and purchasing power so that these hungry people could buy more food, and h) it would provide them with the knowledge needed to implement birth control and other community selfhelp programs. Such a program is not inconsistent with the biblical admonition to multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Scripture also tells us to he good husbandmen and conservationists.


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