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How starvation can be eliminated

By Orville L. FreemanOrville L. Freeman, chairman of Business International Corporation, was US secretary of agriculture in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. / February 23, 1982



This is not a disquisition on guns vs. butter. It is an assertion that food is fundamental, and it offers the less evident but equally true proposition that strategies can be pursued that will eliminate starvation. How vital and novel this proposition is can be illustrated by the grim statistics of the 1970s when some 500 million persons either died of hunger or languished under severe malnutrition.

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A strategy to avoid this human horror has three ingredients.

First, a fact. At present only one half of the world's good arable land is being farmed. Most of the other half is in the developing countries, where both the number of potential producers and the need for food are greatest. Moreover, in many parts of the developing world productivity is at a level of only one third of demonstrated potential. To develop the potential requires major capital investment. But it can be done.

Second, experience. Experience in agriculture and especially experience in the United States, teaches us that the most productive farmers are family farmers who can make use of modern agricultural techniques. In the developing world this means landholders cultivating one to five hectares of land. The problem is how these small landholders can be given access to the technology of modern farming.

This leads to the third ingredient of my global strategy to conquer starvation, which is to group the smallholders of the developing countries around a corporate core, a center established by an experienced international agribusiness company that can supply the smallholders with technology and training, financing, and infrastructure and, most important, can buy the farmers' output at a fair price and process and market the food that is produced. The discipline of profit will see to it that food for which there is a local market is sold domestically and agricultural output for which there is an international market is sold abroad. This system, in addition to putting unused land into production and stimulating the rural economy in the developing countries -- where such stimulation is desperately needed -- also adds to the overall economic development and financial soundness of the country in which such production takes place.

The strategy seems self-evident. But nothing in agriculture is as simple as it seems. The relationship of man to land is one of the most complex relationships there is, with highly intricate psychological and social implications and ramifications. If an effective global strategy against starvation is to be implemented, five fundamentals have to be understood.

1. Agriculture is the key to economic development. No country, with the exception of a few city-states, has ever prospered and built a sound economy without a solid agricultural base.

2. Agriculture is different. The forces with which agriculture must contend and which it must mold and master are quite different from the forces affecting industry. Agriculture is subject to outside, uncontrollable elements: weather, disease, pests, to name a few. Management in agriculture is difficult. It is much easier to manage and produce efficiently using 10,000 men in a factory on one acre of land, than it is to manage 1,000 people on 10,000 acres of land. This is why large-scale producing units are extremely difficult to operate efficiently and profitably. The incentive that results when the producer benefits directly from his efforts cannot be duplicated by large holdings whether they are privately held, communal, cooperative, or state-owned. Results from the factory-size organization of state farms and the large collectives in the USSR are dramatic demonstrations of how not to organize agriculture.

3. Sound agricultural policies are difficult to develop and carry out. The time span required to put into place an appropriate land-people balance, to make available credit and necessary inputs to the grower, and to construct storage, processing, and marketing capacity, is longer than the usual time span of a political officeholder. In addition, carrying out a sound, meaningful agricultural policy calls for changes which, by their very nature, shake up traditional patterns, with the result that they are fiercely resisted.

4. A system where the producer on the soil benefits directly from his efforts is the single most important element in increasing productivity. In most places in the world, this means producer ownership and requires egalitarian land policies, adequately supported by the government. In the developing world, Taiwan and South Korea are examples of success where this principle has been followed.

5. Concentration on the small farmer is the key to success in increasing productivity around the world and in meeting the threat of world famine.