Home > Uncategorized > Can capitalism feed the world sustainably and fairly?

Can capitalism feed the world sustainably and fairly?

from Ken Zimmerman

In 1798, just before the beginning of the industrial revolution in the UK, Robert Malthus published “An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers.” The thesis for the book was simple. The natural human urge to reproduce increases human population geometrically (1, 2, 4, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, etc.). However, food supply, at most, can only increase arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, etc.). Thus, since food is a necessity for human life, population growth in any area or on the planet, if unchecked, would lead to starvation. Malthus argued there are preventative checks and positive checks on the population that slow its growth and keep the population from rising exponentially for too long, but still, poverty and some starvation are inescapable and will continue. Preventative checks alter the birth rate. They include marrying at a later age (moral restraint), abstaining from procreation, birth control, and homosexuality. Malthus considered birth control and homosexuality vices, but recognized they are practiced. Positive checks increase the death rate. These include disease, war, disaster, and finally when other checks don’t reduce the population, famine. The fear of famine or the development of famine was, thought Malthus a major impetus to reduce the birth rate. Potential parents are less likely to have children when they believe their children are likely to starve.

Malthus considered these “laws of nature.” Turns out, it’s not quite so simple. The world’s human population in 1798 was about one billion. Now it’s nearly eight billion. There is famine and starvation. As well as the other preventative and positive checks pointed out by Malthus. But hunger in the modern world results from poverty and inequality, not scarcity. Put more simply, hunger, as well as war, disease, and disaster (more accurately the failures of disaster relief) are results of capitalism. To be fair, at least some of the increases in food production since 1798 result from capitalism, as well. But most is the result of new ways (cultural norms) for farming and new farming technologies.

Farming (mostly now corporate) currently produces more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed every person on the planet. That’s enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak expected by 2050. But people making less than $2 a day — most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating unviable small plots of land — can’t afford to buy this food. Right now, the bulk of industrially produced grain crops go to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the one billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 is only needed if governments and corporations continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people. And, that translates to profits for agribusiness and auto makers.

The bigger issue is how to feed those ten billion expected by 2050, sustainably, in a world racked by the effects of climate change. According the United Nations, there is no choice but to embark on a greener revolution. Crop production can be sustainably increased by using a range of techniques more in tune with ecosystems by minimizing the use of external inputs and by helping farmers cope with the weather extremes that increasingly accompany climate change, thereby enhancing their resilience and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is a kind of farming useful and accessible to small-scale farmers as it is adapted to the conditions they face with emphasis on local crop varieties, and harnessing traditional knowledge to sustain, rather than fight, natural ecosystem processes. At the same time, intensive, industrial-scale farmers must be encouraged to greater environmental awareness. This can be done by providing the right incentives for sustainable practices, and penalties for unsustainable ones, along with strong regulators who know the difference. The dominant agricultural model inherited from the Green Revolution of the 1960s, emphasizing a narrow range of crops and heavy use of chemicals, energy and capital, cannot meet the challenges of the new millennium. How does capitalism fit into this new model to feed the world sustainably and fairly? It’s my opinion it doesn’t. Waiting with bated breath for the views of the largest capitalists on this question.


  1. August 3, 2019 at 5:24 pm

    In September 2018, the Paris-based Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) published a report on An agro-ecological Europe by 2050: Multifunctional Agriculture for Healthy Eating, in which the authors found that a fully agro-ecological Europe could sustainably feed 530 million Europeans by 2050.

    In his fascinating new book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food, Timothy Wise, who is senior research at the Small Planet Institute, comes to very similar conclusions for countries like Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.

    I have captured the possibility of an agro-ecological future and compared it to the current reality in these two diagrams, comparing Agro-business with Agro-ecology

    I have posted my thoughts about this same question here: https://thepracticalutopian.ca/2019/07/12/agro-business-vs-agro-ecology/

  2. August 4, 2019 at 7:02 am

    There are many confounding features influencing how long we have till we cannot go further. It has to end. The planet is finite, We extract resources unsustainably.That used not to matter as we brought more land into the food production, but it’s marginal now. We need fossil fuels today to support mechanised agriculture. Fossil fuels have issues such as global warming. Eventually that will cause sea levels to rise and destroy fertile land. We are building cities on fertile land.The fertility itself is threatened, by chemical agricultural inputs which sterilise the soils and the funghi plants need. Vegetables today are less than half as nutricious as the same were 50 years ago. The food miles is very extravagant. Deserts are expanding.
    And so it goes.As individuals we can make a difference but usually for worse. For better it takes concerted action by the multitude and that is not a known trait in humans. All civilisations have crashed.This one will be the most devastating as there will be nowhere to escape to, except briefly.

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