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201 9 Afterword The growth in population and consumption in the twentieth century was not only unprecedented but also unrepeatable.The world population quadrupled, from 1.5 billion to more than 6 billion.The U.S. population quadrupled between 1900 and 2008, from 76 million to 304 million. The level of consumption in industrialized countries grew much faster, reaching a level that would astonish and possibly dismay earlier generations , for at least half the consumption in wealthy countries involved luxuries and all manner of frivolous goods and services. Such a continued growth rate in the twenty-first century would mean a world population of 24 billion by 2100 and an American population of around 1.1 billion .The earth’s resources cannot support 24 billion people. It is almost inconceivable that the United States could support a billion people with much more than subsistence incomes and after an enormous drawdown of such finite resources as soil, water, forests, and fossil fuels. Agriculture is the only economic sector that is tightly correlated with population. Food supplies set a limit to how many people can live on this earth. At the same time, the demand for food is so inelastic that farmers cannot profitably grow more food than people need or want to consume. Today, more than 800 million people on earth are hungry, and perhaps just as many more malnourished. In this sense, people in some regions have probed the limits of growth, and millions of people, particularly infants, have died for lack of adequate food.The Malthusian equation fits. This does not mean that the world as a whole cannot produce enough food for the present 6.5 billion people. In fact, it can, because some countries, particularly the United States, can easily expand food production .The problem is getting the food to where it is needed most. 202 A Revolution Down on the Farm These realities suggest a different perspective on American agriculture than I have emphasized in this book. Over and over farmers, as well as American consumers and taxpayers, have struggled to find ways to cope with too much food. Our farm problem, as we usually conceive it, has been excess production. But from a larger, and particularly a global, perspective, how lucky we have been. Even as our population has quadrupled, the total output of agricultural goods has slightly more than quadrupled, in part because we have exported anywhere from onefourth to one-third of that product (about 28 percent in 2007). Some Americans still suffer hunger, but not because of any scarcity of food in the economy. The average American family tosses enough food in the garbage every day to feed a villager in India. In view of such good fortune, some questions that still challenge both historians and economists may seem relatively insignificant. One is the role of American farm policy in supporting or possibly retarding the productivity revolution on American farms. Citizens, as consumers or taxpayers, have paid for various subsidies. If one adds the cost of these commodity programs to what we all pay for food, the question is whether the public has benefited from these programs or suffered a net loss in income relative to what they would have gained from a free and open market.This is only the first in a series of “what if” questions. Would farmers, in a freer market, have produced more or less food? Has the structure of production controls and price supports forced American farmers to expand production, enlarge their base acres, seek the greatest possible efficiencies, use the best and latest tools, and adopt the most potent chemicals? Have these controls and subsidies provided the type of long-term security that encouraged farmers to use credit to upgrade technologies at a much faster pace than they would have in an unregulated and often hazardous marketplace? From a different perspective, given the social costs of the mass migration of displaced farmers to cities, were the subsidies misdirected? Is it possible that income support programs for small farmers, allowing them to remain on the land and rural communities to thrive, would have contributed more to national welfare than the policies actually chosen, despite higher food costs? I have not answered any of these questions in this book. The reason is simple: the complexities of the issues, the impossibility of engaging all the counterfactual possibilities, the inability to test any position taken, the frequent merging of issues of value and economic returns, and the lack of...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780813173153
Related ISBN
9780813125190
MARC Record
OCLC
262840971
Pages
240
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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