Too Many for What?
The Social Generation of Food “Scarcity” and “Overpopulation”

by Nicholas Hildyard

first published 1 November 1996


Discussions of population and food supply that leave out power relations between different groups of people will always mask the true nature of food scarcity -- who gets to eat and who doesn’t -- and lead to “solutions” that are simplistic, frequently oppressive and that, ultimately, reinforce the very structures creating ecological damage and hunger. Moreover, by degrading the environment, the forces which are generating organized scarcity -- the chief characteristic of “overpopulation” in the modern era -- are undermining the capacity of the land to produce food. In doing so, they threaten to bring about those conditions of absolute scarcity where even equitable economic and social arrangements may prove insufficient to prevent widespread human impoverishment.





Discussions of population and food supply which leave out power relations between different groups of people will always mask the true nature of food scarcity -- who gets to eat and who doesn't -- and lead to "solutions" that are simplistic, frequently oppressive and which, ultimately, reinforce the very structures creating ecological damage and hunger.

Moreover, by degrading the environment, often irreversibly, the forces which are generating organized scarcity -- the chief characteristic of "overpopulation" in the modern era -- are inexorably undermining the capacity of the land to produce food. In doing so, they threaten to bring about those conditions of absolute scarcity where even equitable economic and social arrangements may prove insufficient to prevent widespread human mpoverishment.

Globe, Inc. is "overpopulated". And as long as access to food and other resources is determined by inequi-table power relationships, it will remain so. Because no matter how much food is produced, how few babies are born or how dramatically human numbers fall, it is the nature of the modern market economy remorselessly to generate "scarcity". Blaming such socially-generated scarcity and ecological degradation on "overpopulation" or "underproduction" has long provided the more powerful with an explanation for human misery that does not indict themselves and that legitimizes various ideologies of exclusion. Without changes in the social and economic relationships that currently determine the production, distribution and consumption of food in the world, there will always be those who are judged "surplus to requirements" and who are thus excluded from the wherewithal to live. The human population could be halved, quartered, decimated even, yet hunger would still remain. So long as one person has the power to deny food to another, even two people may be judged "too many".

Recognizing the existence of socially-generated scarcity -- insufficient necessities for some people and not others -- is not to deny absolute scarcity --insufficient resources, no matter how equitably they are distributed. We live on a finite planet and there are, incontrovertibly, limits to the ability of the earth to accommodate human numbers, pollution, resource depletion and other demands on its "ecological services". It is, however, to insist that differentiating between socially-generated scarcity and absolute scarcity is a sine qua non for any sensible discussion of the causes of food insecurity (see Box 1).

The Experience of Scarcity

Scarcity -- in the sense of a dearth of food or other necessities -- is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, communities have had to contend with failed harvests or disturbances such as war which have led to food insufficiencies. But not everyone experiences this scarcity in the same way: who gets to eat and who goes hungry during periods of insufficiency has always depended on the ability of households and individuals to gain access to food,1 and hence on the distribution of economic and political power within a community and the wider society.

In commons-based regimes,2 where the management of land is a community affair, scarcity and its resulting hardship tend to be a shared phenomenon because the survival of all depends upon no one putting any one else in the community at risk. Working the land, for example, tends to be a co-operative business, with richer farmers just as bound by reciprocal labour arrangements as poorer farmers. Likewise, the joint management of water and other resources means that farmers are under intense social pressure to respect the rights of each other if their own rights are to respected. The commons' culture of joint "ownership" and responsibilities therefore limits the ability of any one group or individual to exercise institutional power over others.3 This does not means that everyone is equal in the commons: gender, class and caste inequalities, for instance, certainly exist, both between households and within households. In general, however, a rough equity prevails in which everyone has some degree of bargaining power. Thus no one is likely to starve whilst others are comfortable.

In market-based regimes, people's experience of scarcity is very different. In an undiluted market economy, access to food is no longer dependent on being part of -- and contributing to -- a social network: instead, food goes to those who have the money to buy it. Only those who, in the economists' jargon, have the income to translate their biological needs into "effective demand" get to eat. In today's global supermarket, people earning $25 a year -- if they are lucky -- must compete for the same food with people who earn $25 a hour, or even $25 a minute.

It is this market logic -- and the power structures that drive it -- that lies behind the paradox of people starving despite abundant local harvests; that explains why shiploads of grain were exported daily from the famine-stricken Horn of Africa during the 1980s to feed already well-fed Europeans; that ensures that cats and dogs belonging to European pet owners can be better fed than children of low-paid or unemployed European workers; that condemns an estimated 800 million people (including two million children in the UK alone) to malnutrition and hunger; and that ensures that, for many people, the experience of scarcity -- insufficient food -- is not a temporary phenomenon. Nor, as was typically the case in commons regimes, is it a phenomenon more or less shared by all; it has become a perennial feature of life for an increasing number of people.4

The deliberate manufacture of scarcity now provides one of the principal means through which state and private interests "monopolize resources, control markets and suppress the demographic majority".5 Such use of scarcity as an instrument of "population control" -- in its sense of "controlling people" -- is not unique to free market economies or to any one historical era. It is, however, only possible in societies where elite interests -- whether state apparatchiks, feudal landlords, colonial sahibs, military wannabes or corporate executives -- have managed, more or less, to deny the majority of people control over the resources and markets on which their livelihoods depend.

Box 1: Scarcity and Scarcity

To accentuate and explore socially-generated scarcity -- insufficient necessities for some people and not others -- is not to deny absolute scarcity -- insufficient resources, no matter how equitably they are distributed. We live on a finite planet and there are incontrovertible limits to the ability of the earth to accommodate human numbers, pollution, resource depletion and other demands on its ecological services. Nonetheless, it is critical that the two types of scarcity be differentiated. As historian and social critic Andrew Ross remarks:

"For more than two decades now, public consciousness has sustained complex assumptions about both kinds of scarcity. In that same period of time, however, neo-liberalism's austerity regime has ushered in what can only be described as a pro-scarcity climate, distinguished, economically, by deep concessions and cutbacks, and, politically, by the rollback of 'excessive' rights. As a result, the new concerns about natural [or absolute] scarcity have been paralleled, every step of the way, by a brutal imposition of social scarcity. More often than not ... the two kinds of scarcity have been confused, either deliberately, in order to reinforce austerity measures against the poor, or else inadvertently, through lack of information and education about how natural resources are produced and distributed."

Ross points out that it is important to distinguish the ways in which one type of scarcity is related to the other and the ways it is not, so as forge appropriate responses. He continues:

"Resource shortages and ecological degradation are primarily a result of the uneven social measures that manufacture scarcity all over the world for the economic and political gain of powerful interests. The systematic inequalities that block peoples' access to income, health, education, and democratic rights are primarily responsible for the geographical and sociological profile of the ecology crisis. In those instances where ecological [or natural or absolute] scarcity appears to harbour no direct connection with social scarcity, its character is defined by economic forces which are nonetheless fundamentally linked to the social and cultural tendencies that fuel pro-scarcity politics. In sum, there is no easy separation of the two kinds of scarcity."

Food scarcity is just one example to illustrate the point. Undoubtedly "natural" events such as floods and droughts play a part in ruining harvests and thus in creating hunger and malnutrition. So too does the ecological degradation that results when people are crowded onto marginal lands and cannot produce enough food for themselves.

But in an age of human-induced climate change and of huge hydroelectric and irrigation construction projects that divert whole river systems, neither droughts nor floods can be viewed as entirely "natural" events. Similarly, the forces that lead people to settle on marginal lands cannot be separated from policies and practices that daily generate scarcity for some people by denying them control over land, inputs, markets and decision-making.

Source: Ross, A., "The Lonely Hour of Scarcity", Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Vol. 7, No. 3, September 1996.

Generating Scarcity of Land

Historically, control over land has always been vital to the livelihoods of the world's poorest people. Lack of access to land not only denies people the ability to grow or to gather their own food: it is also excludes them from a source of power. Who controls the land -- and how they do so -- affects how land is used and to whom the benefits for its use accrue.6

Highly-concentrated land ownership is now a feature of agriculture in both North and South. In the US, nearly half the country's farmland is held by just 124,000 corporations or individuals -- just four per cent of the total number of farm owners.7 In Guatemala, 65 per cent of the best agricultural land is owned by just two per cent of the population8 -- a figure that is not atypical for other countries in Central America. In Brazil, a mere 340 of the largest landowners, many of whom are foreign-owned transnational companies, own more land than all the country's peasants put together. The 18 largest landowners own an area equivalent to that of The Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland combined. In the Philippines, five per cent of all families control 80 per cent of the agricultural land, despite seven land reform laws since 1933.9

The corollary of such concentration of land ownership in the hands of the few is land scarcity for the many. In the Philippines, about 72 per cent of rural households (three-fifths of the Philippine population) are landless or near-landless. Tenant farmers must contend with rents which account for between 25 and 90 per cent of their production costs. Usury at rates of 100 per cent in three months or 50 per cent in one month is common. Half of all those who make a living from agriculture are farm workers, often earning as little as $1 a day.10

In Central America as a whole, small and medium-sized farms producing for local consumption and local sale represent about 94 per cent of existing farms but use only 9 per cent of the farmland. Meanwhile, 85 per cent of the best farmland is used to grow crops for export.11

In Costa Rica, 55 per cent of all rural households are landless or near landless, whereas the cattle owned by 2,000 politically-powerful ranching families occupy more than half of the nation's arable, most fertile land.12 As in other countries throughout the region, smallholders have been pushed from their land into areas where soils are poor and prone to erosion.

In Guatemala, huge swathes of land owned by the biggest landlords -- an estimated 1.2 million hectares -- lie idle, either because the price of export crops is too low to justify planting or because the land is being held simply for speculation.13 Meanwhile, some 310,000 landless labourers over 20-years of age are without permanent employment.14 A complicating factor is that ownership or continued access to land is not secure for many people. Some 22 per cent of farms in the country are held by squatters with limited rights.

Landlessness and poverty go hand-in-hand. Eight out of ten farmers in the Central America do not own enough land to sustain their families, forcing them to look for seasonal jobs. In Guatemala, government figures from the mid-1980s estimated that 86 per cent of families were living below the official poverty line, with 55 per cent classified as "extremely poor". Rates of malnutrition reflect these figures: a national survey in 1980 found that only 27 per cent of all children between six months and five years showed normal physical development, with 45 per cent showing moderate to severe retardation in their growth.15

Box 2: From Colonialism to Land Reform to Privatization

Land concentration in many countries of the Third World and its corollary, socially-generated land scarcity, are linked to the experience of colonialism and the development policies subsequently pursued by many post-Independence governments.

It was standard practice for the majority of colonial administrations to declare that "uncultivated" land was their property. At a stroke, many local communities were denied legal title and access to land they used to leave fallow in rotational cultivation systems and to the forests, grazing lands and streams they relied upon for hunting, gathering, fishing and herding.

Where the lands that colonial authorities sought to exploit were "cultivated", the indigenous population were restricted to tracts of low quality land. In Kenya, "reserves" were "structured to allow the Europeans, who accounted for less than one per cent of the population, to have full access to the agriculturally rich uplands that constituted 20 per cent of the country." In Southern Rhodesia, the colonists, who constituted five per cent of the population, became the new owners of two-thirds of the land. In Northern Rhodesia, the policy of reserving the best land for European agriculture was explicit, the 1932 Agricultural Survey Commission stating that:

"Any land that had poor soils, inadequate water supplies, low nutrition grasses unsuitable for European cattle or [was] overgrown with impenetrable bush, was not suitable for Europeans and should be allocated to Africans."

The lands appropriated by colonial administrations were typically leased out to commercial concerns for plantations, mining and logging, or sold to white settlers.

In India, the British designated vast tracts of forest as "reserve forests". Villagers' rights of access were curtailed and large areas logged to supply timber for ship-building and sleepers for the expanding railway system. In French Equatorial Africa, 70 per cent of the country had been leased to just 40 companies by 1899, with one company receiving 140,000 square kilometres.

Land and Labour

The various colonists needed labour to work the land they had appropriated. But as long as subsistence farming remained viable, few were willing to work for next-to-nothing in the appalling conditions of the mines and plantations. In Southern Africa, white settlers complained until well into the twentieth century that they could not secure sufficient numbers of local people willing to take up paid labour. Many colonial powers thus sought to generate land scarcity by deliberately using price controls, taxation and land appropriation to compel reluctant populations into the labour market.

In Southern Rhodesia, for example, rich soil and ample land enabled local peasants in some areas not only to feed their own households but to make a good living supplying local mining communities with grain and food. Women made substantial profits selling beer brewed from maize. From 1912 onwards, a series of laws were implemented that rapidly eroded households' ability to provide for themselves from their own land. As Carol Thompson of the University of California records:

"First a land bank was established to attract white settlers; they were offered loans up to £2,000 -- with subsidized fertilisers, seeds, livestock and roads for transport. In contrast, other laws alienated land from the Africans, relegating them to the worst land, often remote from the transport systems and markets ... By 1920, the demand for land by whites was sufficient to reduce African holdings by one million acres of the best land in all of Southern Rhodesia."

The 1921 Maize Control Act required Africans to sell their maize to the Maize Control Board rather than to the mines and cities where higher prices could be obtained. The Board often delayed payment for the grain until after taxes were due, depriving peasants of cash and forcing them into debt. Other means of earning cash were restricted in 1936 when the government barred Africans from selling vegetables, chickens, eggs and butter in European areas of Rhodesia's towns. The net effect of such measures was to drive men off the land and into work in the mines or on commercial farms, often at rates that undercut even forced labour.

From Land Scarcity to Land Scarcity

In most countries, the demise of direct colonial rule has done little to correct either the imbalances of power that colonialism generated and exacerbated, or the land scarcity that resulted (with the exception of Cuba and a minority of others).

Many governments have either reneged on promises of land reform or have used land reform programmes to serve the institutional and political aims of a small elite. In Kenya, for instance, where dispossessed farmers formed the backbone of the Mau Mau nationalist movement in the 1950s, Jomo Kenyatta rapidly sidelined land reform as a political priority when he became President in 1963. Although it was agreed under the terms of Kenya's independence from Britain that one million acres of land previously "owned" by Europeans would be transferred to some 25,000 landless and unemployed African families, the beneficiaries often comprised absentee civil servants rather than the landless. No attempt was made to redress the loss of women's traditional rights to land: on the contrary, the colonial system of investing land titles in men -- the presumed "head of the household" -- was continued.

Similarly, once Jawaharlal Nehru's government was in power in India, it turned its back on the demands for radical land reform which had been integral to the involvement of many peasants in the Independence movement. Although measures were introduced throughout the country in the early 1950s to provide security of tenure to tenants and to limit the size of land holdings, many landlords exploited loopholes in the legislation to maintain their holdings or to deny tenants their rights -- not least by evicting millions from their land prior to enactment of the legislation. In many states, implementation of the legislation was effectively blocked by local elites or rendered toothless through delaying tactics which lasted months, if not years.

Even in those areas where it is claimed land reform programmes have been a success, reforms have generally proved piecemeal and short-lived. In West Bengal, for example, "land reform and tenancy control laws were executed by a local bureaucracy largely indifferent, occasionally corrupt and biased in favour of the rural oligarchy ... Quite frequently, protective tenancy legislation may have worsened the conditions of tenants."

More recently, landlessness and land concentration has been exacerbated as a result of IMF-imposed structural adjustment programmes and schemes aimed at privatizing common lands. The Kenyan government's aggressive pursuit of land privatization, for example, has proved highly prejudicial to pastoral groups such as the Maasai.

Modernization and Scarcity

Land concentration in the Third World is not accidental (see Box, p.284). It has always been fiercely resisted, not least by popular movements demanding land redistribution. Imbalances of power, however, have enabled landowners to ensure that, by and large, land reform programmes have either been put on hold, subverted or short-lived. In other instances, they have been framed, not as a means of addressing insecurity of tenure, but as a means of replacing peasant systems of farming with industrialized agriculture.

By defining rural poverty in terms of insufficient productivity (solution: high-yielding crop varieties and agrochemicals) rather than a lack of access to sufficient land (solution: agrarian reform), some governments, in alliance with richer farmers and international development agencies, used "land reform" to appropriate land for the Green Revolution instead of freeing it up for peasant agriculture. The ultimate aim of such "reforms" was to transform Third World farming into "a dynamic productive sector"16 by extending export crop production and by drawing peasants still further into the cash economy where they were at a disadvantage.

The promotion of off-farm inputs -- chemical fertilizers, pesticides and improved seeds -- has forced farmers to buy what was previously free, in addition to locking them into a cycle of diminishing returns on fertilizers and increasing pesticide use. As a result, thousands of small farmers -- including those who had gained land under previous land reform programmes -- have fallen into debt and their land holdings bought up by richer neighbours. In South Korea, where the army was mobilized to rip up traditional varieties of rice and to compel farmers to plant Green Revolution varieties, the number of rural households in debt rose "from 76 per cent in 1971 to 90 per cent in 1983 and to an astounding 98 per cent in 1985."17 As a result, farmers have left the land in droves: 34,000 migrated to the cities in 1986, 41,000 in 1987 and 50,000 in 1988. Many of the farmers who remain have now abandoned the new varieties and are returning to planting traditional seeds.

Thus, for marginal groups of people, the promotion of Green Revolution technologies -- the hallmark of "efficient" farming -- has generated yet more scarcity of land and of food as the land becomes further concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Ecological Degradation

Widespread ecological degradation has also followed the systematic undermining of ecologically-sound systems of agriculture and the adoption of Green Revolution techniques. Such degradation is now in itself a major cause of socially-generated scarcity. In the Sudan, for example, the combination of mechanized farming, monoculture growing and the search for quick profits has caused an estimated 17 million hectares of rainfed arable land -- almost half the country's potential arable land -- to lose its topsoil. As Mohamed Suliman of the Institute for African Alternatives reports:

"Traditional agriculture in the Sudan follows crop rotation systems and fallow periods to conserve and regenerate the fragile land ... The absentee owners of mechanized farms, however, are interested in quick economic returns: knowing that they can move on to new areas, migrant workers employed on these farms tend to neglect the fallow period prescribed by the government and grow the same crop on the same piece of land for several years."18

Productivity is high in the first two to four years, after which yields start to decline: the severely exhausted and eroded land is abandoned around the seventh year when yields fall below profitable levels. The area east of the Nile has been most affected. Loss of tree and plant cover there has exposed the clay soils to wind erosion and compaction, enhancing surface run-off, particularly in the three months when rain falls, often in heavy storms. As the land becomes degraded, so the mechanized farms have sought to expand on to lands farmed or grazed by local subsistence farmers, creating land scarcity for those who previously had sufficient land. In many cases, the result has been open conflict.

In other countries, the expansion of irrigated agriculture, a major feature of the Green Revolution, has led to similar scarcity. Industrialized irrigation agriculture has caused widespread salinization of soils and been a major factor in reducing the availability of water to poorer peasants. In central India, for example, the preferential diversion of limited groundwater supplies to richer farmers growing sugar cane and grapes has created severe water scarcity for poorer sections of the community. In many states, the mining of groundwater for commercial agriculture has led to groundwaters declining by 5-10 metres, generating a scarcity of water for subsistence farmers and villagers whose water demands (unlike those of large industrialized farms) are minimal. In the state of Maharastra, some 23,000 villages are now without water, while in Gujarat the figure is 64,500 villages. In such areas, access to water is increasingly restricted to those who can afford to deepen their wells regularly.19

Scarcity and the Market

As land and water become increasingly degraded, and control over such resources increasingly concentrated, so the livelihoods of peasant farmers, the landless and the near-landless become increasingly precarious. No longer able to rely on growing their food, the vast majority have to buy their food. How much and what they get to eat depends on their ability to earn money or on the state's willingness to support them. For the World Bank and other development agencies, this necessity has frequently been interpreted as evidence of the need to integrate Third World agriculture still further into the global economy so as to increase the income of farmers and to generate rural and urban employment.

Yet, as economist Amartya Sen points out, the creation of famine and hunger results not from the exclusion of the marginalized from markets (they have always marketed goods) but from the normal working of markets. In his classic text, Poverty and Famines, Sen stresses that the famines which decimated peasants in India in 1943 and in Ethiopia, the Sahel and Bangladesh in 1974 were not the result of market failures, but of those market and non-market mechanisms (including the ownership of resources) which undermine the ability of poorer sections of the community to command goods on the market.20 The terms on which people come to the market -- and in particular their ability to exercise control over resources and trade -- are thus critical to whether they experience scarcity as starvation and famine.21

The development policies pursued by Third World countries, under the tutelage of the IMF and the World Bank, have dramatically undercut the bargaining power of poorer people within the market. The growing pool of landless labourers, many of whom are women, means that the rural poor must compete for jobs in a "buyer's market", giving employers the upper hand in determining wages and working conditions. Real wages for labourers have been rapidly declining in many Third World countries.22 As writer and researcher Jon Bennet remarks of the estimated 1.75 million seasonal labourers who compete for work in the cotton growing areas of Sudan:

"Stripped of their traditional means of support, farmworkers [have] become simply components of production... increasingly vulnerable to the shifting fortunes of an economy outside their control. As a seemingly limitless resource with minimal bargaining power, they [can] now be hired or fired at will."23

Those working as labourers in export-crop plantations have been particularly vulnerable to exploitative wages and working conditions. Because exporters rely on markets abroad rather than at home for the sale of their crops, low wages are not "necessarily so bad for business" since "profits do not necessarily significantly depend on the ability to sell domestic products to wage earners or peasants".24

Scarcity Under Contract

Even where peasant producers do have access to land, they may be hardly better off than landless labourers in an economy over which they have little control. Increasingly, large corporate producers are moving away from direct ownership of land towards indirect control through contracts with peasant smallholders. Under the terms of the contract, a company agrees to buy given quantities of crops of particular specifications at a fixed price in return for supplying inputs and advice. The peasants retain ownership of their land, but have to abide by the conditions set by the company regarding cultivation, marketing and pricing, if they are to sell the crop.25 The risks of production, heightened by unstable global markets, are thus transferred to the peasant, who becomes, in effect, a tied-labourer for the company.

Companies are also opting for "outgrower schemes" whereby independent producers supplement output from company plantations. Either way, peasants become increasingly dependent for their livelihoods on corporations, whose buying power is used to drive down prices and to impose strict conditions not only on what is grown but how it is grown.

The Kenyan state-managed Mwea Rice Scheme, in which peasant plots are grouped together to enable block farming, typifies the problems faced by smallholders growing export crops in such schemes. As researcher Philip Raikes reported in the late 1980s, malnutrition was "serious and persistent" among women and their children because the scheme denied them land on which to grow their own food-crops.26

Moreover, because the onus of finding and organizing the labour force is placed on the contracted grower -- generally the male head of household -- contract farming can create new tensions, resulting in increased divorce, domestic tension, and the renegotiation of family and marital responsibilities."27 Such intra-household tensions can further disadvantage women whose access to food within households, even within relatively equitable commons regimes, has historically been skewed by gender biases. Food owned by the household, for example, is not always shared equally: gender subordination results in women often being the last to eat and explains why, in a number of recent incidence of famine, food shortages have resulted in women being "neglected, abandoned, divorced and sold into prostitution in the interests of male survival."28

Colonizing the Future

Eight hundred million people now experience socially-induced food scarcity. Rather than address the inequitable power relations that lie behind such scarcity, however, "solutions" that minimize disruption to the status quo are put forward by the generators of such scarcity.

One tactic has been to reduce the problem to abstract mathematical equations in which projected agricultural output is set against projected human numbers to justify the continuance of current forms of food production. Factors that do not compute -- a wide range of different and interacting power relationships, systems of land tenure, food grown and traded outside the formal markets, and so on -- are simply left out of the equation.

Backed by "the amoral authority of numbers",29 such quantitative assessments of global food budgets are powerful tools in colonizing the future for specific interest groups. Legitimate concerns about future rates of population growth, for example, are regularly harnessed to insist that current policies aimed at industrializing agriculture must be pursued more aggressively. Estimated projections for population increases are thus set alongside figures of declining output (usually guestimates based on officially marketed agricultural produce) to argue the case for an overall increase in pesticide and fertilizer use and the employment of genetically engineered crops -- or to dismiss traditional "low external input technologies" as inadequate to meet the challenge of feeding an extra 2.5 billion people in the next 30 years.30 The myriad ways in which production could be increased using labour-intensive, organic methods of agriculture are steadfastly ignored,31 as is the increasing tendency for many peasants to sell their crops on the black market or to consume the food themselves -- produce which is not accounted for in official output estimates.

In the absence of radical change to current economic and social structures, however, increased output -- whatever way it is achieved -- will not translate into increased numbers of people fed. In a world in which scarcity is continually generated as an unavoidable -- some would argue, deliberate -- feature of the food system, the experience of hunger will only increase.

In addition, by inexorably undermining the capacity of land to produce food, the ecological damage caused by intensive farming is creating the conditions for absolute scarcity -- where even equitable economic and social arrangements may prove insufficient to prevent widespread human impoverishment. Artificial fertilizers and chemical sprays, for example, have disastrously undermined the natural fertility of soils. As farmers have ceased to apply manure and other organic material to the land, so the soil's structure in many areas has begun to break down, increasing its vulnerability to erosion -- an estimated 24 billion tonnes of soil being eroded from the world's agricultural lands every year. This is enough soil to fill a train of freight cars stretching from the Earth to the Moon -- and back again -- five times.

In arid areas, the introduction of perennial irrigation has brought the added problem of salinization. Irrigation agriculture is one of the most productive forms of farming, but the irrigation of poorly drained land, year after year, has waterlogged the soils, causing salts in the groundwater to rise to the surface, where they accumulate, turning vast stretches of farmland into salt-encrusted desert. In many areas, irrigated land is now so severely degraded that it is unfit for agriculture.

Nonetheless, FAO argues that the achievement of increased cropping intensities and higher yields "depends crucially" on maintenance of irrigation and its further expansion by 23 million hectares. Greater use of pesticides and fertilizers is also predicted. FAO also argues that some 800 hectares of tropical forest will have to be converted to agriculture32 -- a change of land use that has dramatic implications for climate change (see this issue pp.290ff).

Meanwhile genuine concerns about the impacts of environmental degradation, coupled with concerns over population growth, are being reworked by some policymakers to legitimize yet further land enclosure. FAO, for example, has proposed that, in the interests of "environmental protection" and "sustainability", all national governments should "zone" agricultural lands, rangelands and forests. Under this policy, "high potential areas" (that is, the most fertile areas) would be set aside for intensive export crop monocultures or livestock rearing and the "carrying and population supporting capacity of major agricultural areas" assessed. Where such areas are deemed to be "overpopulated", steps should be taken to change "the man/land ratio" by "facilitating the accommodation of migrating populations in better endowed areas."33 Peasants who have been forced on to marginal lands as a result of "high potential areas" being taken over for intensive export-orientated agriculture would thus be liable to resettlement at the whim of any government which deemed them a threat to "the environment". FAO does not even consider the possibility that ecological stress would be better relieved by reclaiming "high potential areas" for peasant agriculture.

Two Too Many

Discussions of population and food supply which leave out power relations will always mask the true nature of food scarcity -- who gets to eat and who doesn't -- and lead to "solutions" that are simplistic, technocratic, frequently oppressive and gender-blind -- all of which, ultimately, reinforce the very structures that create ecological damage and hunger. To reiterate: so long as one person has the power to deny food to another, even two people may be judged "too many". Recognizing that fact -- and putting equity at the centre of the debate -- is a sine qua non for any sensible discussion of the causes of food insecurity and food scarcity.

Notes and references

1 Sen, A., Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Clarendon, Oxford, 1981.

2 For a discussion of commons regimes, see Hildyard, N., Lohmann, L., Sexton, S. and Fairlie, S., Whose Common Future? Reclaiming the Commons, Earthscan, London, 1993.

3 Ibid. The rough equity which generally prevails in the commons does not grow out of any ideal or romantic preconceived notion of "communitas" any more than out of allegiance to the modern notion that people have "equal rights". Rather, it emerges as a by-product of the inability of a small community's elite to eliminate entirely the bargaining power of any one of its members, the limited amount of goods any one group can make away with under the others' gaze, and the calculated jockeying for position of many individuals who know each other and share an interest both in minimizing their own risks and in not letting any one of their number become too powerful.

4 Xenon, N., Scarcity and Modernity, Routledge, London, 1989, p.3. As Xenon notes, "Of medieval origin, 'scarcity' derives from the Old North French escarcet. Its original usage denoted an insufficiency of supply, and by the fifteenth century the word took on a more specific meaning as an insufficiency of supply of necessities, or a dearth. At the same time, the term acquired a clear temporal characteristic signifying a period of insufficiency or a dearth. This remained the principle usage until the late nineteenth century, when neo-classical economics made the scarcity postulate its foundation and the term passed into general usage through its transformation into a concept signifying a general condition: not a 'scarcity of', or 'a time of scarcity', but simply "scarcity"."

5 Ross, A., "The Lonely Hour of Scarcity", Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Volume 7, No.3, September 1996, p.6.

6 Tansey, G. and Worsley, T., The Food System: A Guide, Earthscan, 1995, p.87.

7 Krebs, A.V., The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness, Essential Books, Washington DC, 1992, p.60.

8 Colchester, M. "Guatemala: The Clamour for Land and the Fate of the Forests" in Colchester, M. and Lohmann, L., (eds.) The Struggle for Land and the Fate of the Forests, Zed Books, London, 1993, p.113.

9 Marvic Leonen, "The Philippines: Dwindling Frontiers and Agrarian Reform", in Colchester, M. and Lohmann, L., (eds.) op. cit. 8, p.275.

10 Ibid., p.274.

11 Barry, T., Roots of Rebellion: Land and Hunger in Central America, South End Press, Boston, 1987, p.xiv.

12 Durning, A.B., Poverty and the Environment: Reversing the Downward Spiral, Worldwatch Paper 92, Washington DC, 1989, cited in Wachter, D. and North, N, Land Tenure and Sustainable Management of Agricultural Soils, Centre for Development and Environment, Institute of Geography, University of Berne, Switzerland, 1996, p.6.

13 The problem is a general one. See, for example, Putzel, J. and Cunningham, J., Gaining Ground: Agrarian Reform in the Philippines, War on Want, London, 1989, p.35.

14 Colchester, M., op. cit. 8, p.114.

15 Ibid., p.120.

16 Alexandratos, N., (ed.), World Agriculture: Toward 2000, An FAO Study, Belhaven Press, by arrangement with FAO, London, 1988.

17 Bello, W. and Rosenfeld, S., Dragons in Distress: Asia's Miracle Economies in Crisis, Institute of Food and Development Policy, Food First, San Francisco, 1990, p.86.

18 Suliman, M., "Civil War in the Sudan: From Ethnic to Ecological Conflict", The Ecologist, Vol.23, No.3, May/June 1993, p.106.

19 Bandyopadhyay, J., "The Ecology of Drought and Water Scarcity", The Ecologist, Vol.18, Nos 2/3, 1988, p.93.

20 Sen, A., op. cit. 1. See also Mackintosh, M., "Abstract Markets and Real Needs" in Berstein, H., Crow, B., Mackintosh, M. and Martin, C., The Food Question: Profits versus People?, Earthscan, London, 1990, pp.44-45.

21 Mackintosh, M., op. cit. 20, p.44.

22 The effect, and some would say the purpose, of the extravagant pattern of land holdings found in many countries is to ensure a ready availability of labour for work on estates. Since the majority of the small farms cannot themselves provide a living -- particularly when taxes and other demands are taken into account -- many peasants have to find off-farm employment to support themselves.

23 Bennet, J., with George, S., The Hunger Machine, Polity Press/ Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987, p.59.

24 O'Brien, J. and Gruenbaum, E., "A Social History of Food, Famine and Gender in Twentieth-Century Sudan" in Downs, R.E., Kerner, D.O. and Reyna, S.P., The Political Economy of African Famine, Gordon and Breach, Reading, 1991, p.178. O'Brien and Gruenbaum point out that domestic traders too may have an interest in keeping wages low. In the mid-1980s, for example, "Mass starvation in the rural areas had become one of the most profitable businesses in the Sudan in the form of hoarding of and black marketering in foodstuffs."

25 Halfani, M.S. and Baker, J., "Agribusiness and Agrarian Change" in Barker, J., (ed.), The Politics of Agriculture in Tropical Africa, Sage Series on African Modernization and Development, Volume 9, Sage Publications, London, 1984, p.48.

26 Raikes, P., Modernizing Hunger, Catholic Institute for International Relations, in collaboration with James Currey, London, 1988, p.57.

27 Watts, M. J., "Living Under Contract: The Social Impacts of Contract Farming in West Africa, The Ecologist, Vol. 24, No.4, July/August 1994, p.130.

28 For further discussion, see contributions in Downs, R.E., Kerner, D.O. and Reyna, S.P., op. cit. 24; and Berstein, H., Crow, B., Mackintosh, M. and Martin, C., op. cit. 20.

29 Ross, A., op. cit. 5, p.20.

30 World Bank, Agricultural Action Plan -- From Vision to Action in the Rural Sector, Office Memorandum from Caio Koch-Weser to James Wolfensohn, 23 February 1996, p.1.

31 Intensifying agriculture by applying more fertilizers and pesticides to monocultures is often a less effective way of increasing output per acre than adopting labour-intensive polycultures which harness natural biological cycles.

32 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Agriculture: Towards 2010, FAO, Rome, 1993, p.13.

33 FAO/Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries of The Netherlands, Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development, Draft Proposals, 's-Hertenbosch, The Netherlands, p.16: FAO/Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries of The Netherlands, The Den Bosch Declaration and Agenda for Action on Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development, 's-Herten--bosch, The Netherlands, p.9.