Essays: Hungry world |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Hungry world

IMAGES of world-wide hunger filled the screen throughout the week, promising never to go away. The most terrifying were on The Face of Famine (BBC1), a Tuesday Documentary superlatively produced by Simon Campbell-Jones, who achieved the difficult feat of turning pictures you could hardly bear to look at into a programme you could not turn off.

The declared aim was to show the connection between Us eating too much and Them eating too little. All depends, it was made clear, on the North American farms, which produce the bulk of the wheat, corn, soya beans and rice available to the world for export. In 1974 the harvest was down, leaving no reserves. With no reserves, the prices rose world-wide. One price for the world means one famine for the world, since all consumers below a certain income, wherever they are, will starve. The only reason we don’t is that our incomes are too high — so far.

That was the main argument. It was presented with clinical plainness by means of text, diagrams and film. Since some of the film, however, showed wasted babies with their mouths full of flies, an attitude of cool detachment on the viewer’s part was not easy to attain. Neither concussed with horror nor lulled by authoritative tones, but usefully poised between terror and comprehension, the overfed spectator was led on to consider future prospects. It was made evident that we are back in the world of Malthus, who said that misery was inevitable because the population increases geometrically, whereas the resources to feed it increase only arithmetically, or words to that effect. Subsequent agricultural developments made nonsense of that contention, but, as I understand it, his ideas have now become respectable again, although his name is rarely mentioned.

Edifying references were made to the law of diminishing returns, which dictates, among other things, that the fertilisers of the Green Revolution are of least value to the crops that have already benefited from them, since it takes more and more fertiliser to produce an increase in yield, until finally it takes a huge amount to produce no increase at all. Fertiliser is consequently of more use in the Third World. Unfortunately fertiliser is in short supply, so the other law, the law of one price, insists that the Third World shan’t get enough of it. Whether the law of one price is bound to be as inflexible as the law of diminishing returns is a big question, to which the programme had no easy answer.

Global problems appear to entail global solutions, which would appear in turn to entail a global government. The script was commendably reluctant to suppose that such a thing would ever come about, and used the time saved by not proposing it to further analyse the dis-equilibrium between people and food. The results would have been intriguing if they had not been so grim. Since people have a lot of children through fear of most of them dying, it follows that the infant mortality rate must come down before birth control becomes acceptable. So the population will have to go up even further than it would have anyway before it can come down.

Win or lose, the population goes up. Meanwhile, if the weather trends continue, the food supply decreases. The immediate answer is to persuade the rich countries to eat less meat, because the meat, while still in the form of an animal, eats too much grain. (When it can get it: cattle have been starving in Britain this winter.) The grain released to Them by Us eating less meat would be gratifyingly disproportionate. But how the British Government, to name but one, would react to a decline in the meat-growing industry — or how the meat-growing industry would react, for that matter — was left open. The programme finished with a sharp reminder that our every full plate is killing somebody somewhere. A tot writhed in torment.

If the world system is a killer, local self-sufficiency might be the only answer. It’s over this point that people now seem to be picking up teams with nice people (idealists, Hobbit-fanciers, Open University resident lecturers in leather jackets) on the side of self-sufficiency, and nasty people (Kissinger-enthusiasts, realists, professors of economics) on the side of the world system. It might be necessary for the buffeted viewer to go on reminding himself, in the coming months or years, that the answer, if there is one, could lie somewhere outside the television arena. The Mexicans might produce a strain of wheat that fixes its own nitrogen, grows in a hailstorm and takes over the planet. What we are watching could be a debate between dreamers.

Yet there’s no denying that the dreamers are serious. On a small programme called The Way We Live (Westward), determined schoolgirls looked forward to self-sufficiency and gnarled men pointed proudly at their allotments, on which a staggering amount of vegetable matter vigorously jostled. But there were professors on hand to point out that Digging for Victory, though it might go a long way towards filling the bill, could never quite. The mini-series Economics of the Real World (BBC2) is re-running on BBC2. In the latest episode two economists disagreed, and it was difficult to decide which one was nice and which was nasty. Keith Griffin took the nice view that trade had increased the inequality between nations, whereas Professor Bauer took the nasty view that trade had nothing to do with inequality — countries are most backward when they trade least.

Divided on this, the two experts united to call Aid a bad thing — an ex-nasty opinion which is now becoming nice. The wise viewer should remember that while the debaters interpret the facts, he is interpreting only the debate.

World in Action (Granada) had its own pictures of emaciation: character-building shots of wrecked babies on Indian and Ceylonese tea estates owned by British companies. WIA first hammered at this scandal in 1973, perhaps expecting a crackdown when Labour took power. Nothing happened. The quoted letters from the responsible Ministry sounded feeble in the extreme — craven endorsements of the companies’ lethal assumption that conditions for workers could not be bettered until profits improved. Here it was a relief to hiss villains other than oneself — or would have been, if the footage had allowed levity. But it didn’t.

The Fight Against Slavery (BBC2) clocked up its first episode. Pure Disneyland: the unfalteringly anodyne treatment turned catastrophe into pattycake. Gustav Mahler made his first appearance on Sportsnight (BBC1), providing orchestral accompaniment to the Japanese gymnasts, whose teeth get better and better as the years go by. Harry Carpenter’s smile, on the other hand, gets weirder and weirder. In the Come Dancing finals (BBC1) the knicker-flashing in the Latin American numbers reached dizzy new heights.

The Observer, 23rd March 1975