Feeding a superstition

Editor's Introduction -- In one of their few lapses of good judgment, the writers of the high-school book ChemCom: Chemistry in the Community have decided to promote the common superstition that there is enough food for all the humans on Earth.
This article ran in The Textbook Letter for September-October 1993.

The Economics of Fantasyland

William J. Bennetta

California sits on a shelf of land that will break off and fall into the sea during the next earthquake. Residents of New York City buy baby alligators for pets, tire of them, and flush them into the city's sewer system, where the 'gators grow into big, dangerous beasts. The world has enough food for everyone, but people starve because the food isn't distributed properly.

All of those notions are silly, of course, but they are widely circulated and widely believed. The fantasy about abundant food is particularly interesting. In this age of ecological collapse, we might expect the plenty-for-everyone story to fade away because its falsity is so manifest. It keeps showing up, however, and it even appears in the 1993 version of ChemCom. Read page 223:

Three factors determine the abundance or scarcity of any resource, . . . .
•   Supply (How much is available?)
•   Demand (How much is needed?)
•   Distribution (Where is it and how can it be obtained?)

According to the best available data, the world has enough food for everyone. The World Hunger Project at Brown University estimates that sufficient food is produced globally to feed 20% more than the world's current population. In other words, the overall supply of food appears adequate to meet demands. [A note in the page-margin adds: This estimate assumes an adequate vegetarian diet.]

Why then is there world hunger? . . . The distribution of food must certainly be one key to the puzzle (Figure 1). [In figure 1, unlabeled arrows fly among "Supply" and "Distribution" and "Demand."]

That entire ChemCom excursion, including the citing of the "World Hunger Project," is rubbish. It contains no valid information at all, and it involves a brazen distortion.

The ACS writers begin by giving utterly nonsensical definitions of supply, demand and distribution, and by depicting supply and demand as mystical things that are fixed and independent of each other. Let me correct the writers' misconceptions:

Supply     No matter how the word supply may be used in common speech, its meaning in economics is precise: The supply of a commodity is the amount that producers are willing to send to market at a specified price. The ACS writers' claim -- that "supply" is merely the amount that is "available" -- is meaningless, since the available amount rises and falls with price. A higher price induces greater production (i.e., a bigger supply), a lower price does the opposite, and these effects occur continually.

Demand     Again, vulgar usage doesn't matter. In an economic context, the demand for a commodity is the amount that buyers are willing to take at a specified price. A higher price repels some buyers, so demand falls; a lower price does the opposite. Yet the ACS writers treat demand as a sort of physical constant, and they make things hopeless by describing demand as how much is "needed." What does that mean? The word need has no established, reliable meaning in economics. We may read some ad hoc meaning into it in a specific case, but it cannot serve in defining basic economic quantities.

Distribution     Distribution can be defined as the task of getting a product to market and into the hands of buyers. It entails some costs, of course, and these are reflected in the market price; hence supply and demand automatically take account of distribution. The ACS writers, however, depict distribution as a basic economic force that ranks with supply and demand but is separate from them. Wrong.

Far worse than the bogus definitions is the writers' claim that "the best available data" show that there is "enough food for everyone." Appalled to find that codswallop in a schoolbook, I sought to learn where it had come from.

Rebecca J. Mason Simmons, a staff associate in the ACS's Office of High School Chemistry, told me that the claim was based on The Hunger Report: 1988 and The Hunger Report: Update 1989, issued by The Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Program (not "Project") at Brown University. I obtained those documents, and I found that the text about global food resources was virtually the same in both. Here is the version given on page 2 of the Update, under the heading "Global Food Shortage":

Drawing upon the most recent estimates of primary food supply, the world's vegetative food supply and the products of range-fed animals would provide an adequate diet for some six billion people or 20% more than the current population of the world . . . . Indeed, by this standard there has probably been enough food to feed the world's population since the early 1960s.

But given a modest improvement beyond what is essentially a near-vegetarian diet to one similar to what many South Americans eat today, a real food shortage exists in the world. For at that standard, there is only food enough to feed about four billion, or 80% of the current world population. And to provide a full-but-healthy diet, one that incorporates the desires most people have for richer and more varied foods, then there is only sufficient food in the world to feed about three billion people or 60% of the world population. Of course, it is important to note that much more food probably could and would be produced if more people had the means to purchase it.

As the last sentence of that passage makes clear, the writers of the Update know that supply and demand are related to each other, are variable, and are linked to price. (The ACS writers have managed to exclude all of those points from their Fantasyland economics.) The Update writers also tell (on their page 3) that they are analyzing information for the year 1986. Such information is now obsolete, but the ACS writers grandly call it "the best available data."

The most reprehensible aspect of the ACS writers' stunt, however, is their brazen misrepresentation of the results that the Update sets out. The Update writers considered three standards of diet. Using the first standard, which obviously did not reflect the real world of 1986, they calculated that food in 1986 was superabundant; but with the other standards they found that food stocks in 1986 were inadequate by wide margins. The ACS writers have used the first case to promote the plenty-for-everybody fantasy while suppressing the other cases completely.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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