Feeding the World

Feeding the World


The above is the title of an article by Sir A. Daniel Hall appearing in the May issue of the Atlantic Monthly that we found particularly interesting. The writer of the article was for many years director of the famous Rothamsted Experiment Station, and is the author of several textbooks on agriculture. He is at present chief scientific advisor to the British Ministry of Agriculture and is an authority on his subject. The problem he deals with is how the world is to be fed in the face of the growing population. He points out that the increase in the world’s population is causing food prices to rise. This, of course, is encouraging for farmers, but not quite such good news for consumers in the city, who want to buy their food as cheaply as possible.

There is a certain balance between agriculture and industry which will give farmers the highest standard of living possible. Curious as it may appear, food prices might be pushed to such a high point that it would lower that standard of living for farmers themselves, because if this happened we would have to many people on the land producing food and not enough producing the other things which farmers require to give them what we call a high standard of living. If food ever became so scarce that everybody stayed on the farm it would be the worst thing that could possibly happen from the farmer’s point of view. As Sir Daniel says, “It is not in itself desirable that a maximum population should be engaged upon the land; in a self-contained community the smaller proportion of workers employed in the work of producing necessary food the wealthier the community, because thereby a greater number are set free to produce other items of wealth- houses, boots, clothes, amusements- available for distribution.”

The real problem from the farmer’s standpoint is not so much to get the price of his products up to an exorbitant level as to get a proper balance between production on the farm and in the city. This balance was upset by the war, but it is rapidly being adjusted. This is what Sir Daniel says on this point:

“we have to face the fact that food is in the process of becoming scarce in relation to the increasing population of the world. In is ‘Mankind at the Crossroads’ Professor East has just published a striking exposition of the path the world is following. Populations are continuing to rise and, except in France, at an increasing rate; even the World War has caused no more than a flicker in the ascending curve. Yet where during the present century can be seen the corresponding expansion in food production? With the exception of the growth of the cultivated area in Canada, there has been nothing since to compare with the opening up of the Middle West, of Argentina, and of Australia during the previous half century. That was the great period of growth of agricultural supplies, of cheapening food, and we have got into the way of regarding the sources as illimitable and the process as continuous. But new lands are no longer available.

“Russia used to be a considerable exporter of wheat, and is expected eventually to resume that position, but as far as Russia in Europe is concerned it is doubtful whether the land is able to do more than support the existing population, provided it is adequately fed. Past surpluses for export were often accompanied by need on the verge of famine, and though better methods and organization might result in greatly increased production, it is hardly likely to keep pace with the growth of population. Russia in Asia is a more unknown factor, as are tropical South America and Africa, but we know enough to be able to say that they cannot be organized rapidly for export of food-stuffs, as were the great prairies of Central North America. The gradual shrinkage of food supplies relative to the consuming population was becoming evident in steadily rising prices from 1900 onward- a rise which is being again resumed after the wild fluctuations due to war, to boom and deflation. It was significant that even before the war the United States was being compelled from time to time to supplement by imports her production of corn, wheat, and of meat; it is significant now that the new factor in the market to which some of the rise in wheat prices is attributed is an increasing volume of purchases from China and Japan. Scarcity will not come in a night; for a long time, as the Chicago operators say, wheat can always be found somewhere by scraping the bottom of the bin; but it is only prudent to calculate on a continued hardening of prices and the more frequent occurrence of panic rises, as a seasonal deficiency strikes a marker denuded of reserves.

“The orthodox economist will say at once that this situation will create its own remedy; under the stimulus of rising prices more people will be attracted into agriculture, production will be increased and the balance restored.

“It has already been indicated that there is no new land very accessible; the settled countries possess no potential reserves, as may be seen from the way the United States has been driven to experiments in the reclamation of ‘bad’ lands, with no conspicuous measure of success. Nor as a rule do men who have once taken to urban life migrate back to the country because conditions are more promising; the tide sets always the other way, and if agricultural population is to increase, it will have to be by its own growth.”

Sir Daniel says that since non great extent of new land appears to be available, the only way of providing for the increasing population of the world is by raising the level of production on land already in cultivation. “At the same time the efficiency of the methods of production must be raised. Indeed, the efficiency of the individual has to become such as will enable him to earn returns or wages commensurate with those obtainable in the industries; otherwise men will continue to drift away from the land.”

It is then shown that production per acre can be materially increased. It is then stated that in mediaeval times in England the average yield of wheat per acre was eight or ten bushels. This was under the single crop system of farming. When the system of growing clover and turnips, as well as grain was introduced and the rotation of crops became established, the average yield of wheat was raised to around twenty-four bushels per acre. From 1840 science was applied to the growing of crops and the raising of live stock, and artificial fertilizers and foreign feeding stuffs became available, and soon the level of production was raised to about thirty-two bushels per acre, where it stands at the present time. This is about twice the yield obtained in Canada and the United States, so that production on this continent can still be materially increased even if no new land is brought under cultivation. Of course the law of diminishing returns comes into play, and it is this indeed that has held production in Great Britain down to its present level. Higher prices, however, will enable farmers to farm more intensively.

Sir Daniel discusses the pros and cons of large and small farms and concludes that the large farm will be the farm of the future- at least on this continent. This is interesting in view of the fact that the average size of farm in Ontario has been increasing for some time past. It is admitted that small farms are often cultivated more intensively than large farms, but Sir Daniel claims that the large farm can be operated more economically than the small farm on account of smaller overhead, and sees no reason why, given efficient management, the large farm should not be farmed as intensively as the small farm. “The necessary condition for the industrialized farm,” he points out, “is the reestablishment of prices that will permit of a commercial return on capital and of wages at something comparable to the industrial level, and this condition of higher prices is being brought about by the way the demand is increasing faster than the supply.”

In conclusion, Sir Daniel says: “The evolution of agriculture toward the large industrial farm devoted to economic production may be delayed, but it must come, if for no other reason than because it makes the most effective use of man power, and man power is becoming the most expensive item in cost production. Even in Britain, where the small farm is generally forced into a more intensive form of agriculture and produces more per acre, the production per man- and therefore the surplus sale- is greater on the larger farms. How soon the change will begin to be operative depends upon the course of prices, but higher food prices must follow the inevitable growth of population, even if for one unforeseen cause and another they lag behind expectations.”


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