Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor

Missed the Mark
Michael Smitka

Graduate Student, Economics
Yale University
379 Temple Street
New Haven, Connecticut 06511


From: JASA 35 (June 1983): 127-128.

I am glad to see that the Journal is publishing articles on hunger and development issues (and that the upcoming annual convention has resource use as a theme). However I feel that Spaling ("Land and Life: The Threatened Link," Journal ASA 34, December 1982) missed the mark on almost every point.

While Spaling does not make this explicit, I presume that the issue which he wants to face is that of hunger in developing countries. What he actually deals with is the change from active cultivation to other uses of land in the U.S. and Canada. He seems to be saying that increased amounts of land under cultivation will increase agricultural output in the U.S.; that this will produce a surplus which will find its way to less developed countries, thereby eliminating the presumed food deficits; and that with the food supply shortfall eliminated hunger will be substantially reduced. A second claim he makes with which I disagree is that "arable" land from a Christian perspective is productive only when used for agriculture.

It may be true that increasing acreage under plow would increase output, but at the moment (from the viewpoint of American farmers who are struggling with a surfeit of grains) it would take substantial government price supports to convince anyone it is worth their while. More important, in very few cases does hunger seem to be a matter of food unavailability (and this has been documented even in many situations of famine). It is rather that the poor have no means to purchase food, even if stores are overflowing and farmers are going bankrupt from low prices-and U.S. grain surpluses finding their way onto domestic markets of less developed countries may aggravate the latter without helping the poor, which would hurt long-term supply.

Food in fact is not in short supply. Evidence points toward there being a 10% worldwide food surplus, at least in the crude calories vs. population sense, and many countries in which hunger is widespread (such as India) have been increasing their per capita food output for two decades. The possibilities for adding to agricultural productivity through current technology are very substantial, and it is hard to be concerned about any food "crisis" in the forseeable future that originates in a gross supply shortfall. Increasing U.S. agricultural output, or even that in "hungry" countries, will not eliminate starvation, and may not even significantly alleviate it.

The claim that from a Christian perspective the sole use of land is agriculture hardly bears discussion-the psalms proclaim the beauty of the hills, not the "crime" that they are not under plow ... That letting it lie fallow (housing, forests, parks) is a sin in the U.S. is contingent upon showing that increased U.S. food output will alleviate hunger, something which unfortunately is not true. Even if it were, I suspect that a Christian consensus would not emerge on this point.

Hunger is rooted in poverty, and poverty is one outcome of man's sinfulness. Eliminating it requires that men change drastically, not that resource use change marginally. Jesus himself stated that the poor (and hunger) will always be with us, and we should not be naive on our ability to change the world. Yet as Christians we also know that the Holy Spirit does renew us individually and corporately. We hope, and act, and know that we do make a difference, even though we cannot effect a final solution. That God has promised to do, and we believe has done (in a way we poorly comprehend) through Christ's death.

The resources available to us in God's creation are manifold, and their uses many. Economists may be able to illuminate the sometimes subtle tradeoffs among various uses. As Christians we must then try to seek God's way in making an informed choice, remembering that people are the fundamental problem. U.S. land may not in many instances be best used for agriculture (though this may change); this does not mean that the alternate uses to which land is being put are proper, and Spaling at least has raised this as an overall issue, whatever other problems his article may have.