Wheat on the Savannah – Capitalisms last frontier #1

Imagine a line sketched across the face of the planet.

On one side of the line lies the world before capitalism, of subsistence agriculture, small villages and the wilderness. On the other side lies food farmed commercially, a world of markets, market towns, of a population that is enabled to work but not farm and hence a world of factories, cities and mass consumption.

This line is known as the ‘margin of cultivation’ – it is likely the single most important concept in the history of economics. Understanding it is key to understanding why whole peoples starve, or thrive and multiply. Why countries grow and how fast they grow, and indeed what the limits to growth are at any one time.

Today that margin, the food frontier of capitalism has swept across the planet. It has conquered Europe and the steppes of central Asia. It has crossed the Atlantic and all our oceans and swept across the United States from coast to coast and in Australia to the dry edges of the outback. In Asia the margins of rice cultivation has krept up mountains, and in almost every realistic place to cultivate. In South America it has pushed back the edges of rain forest, and now in Africa, the last great, unconquered continent, huge swathes of land are being bought and sold by Hedge funds for international export of food. Middle Eastern nations, some like Saudi exhausting their ground water supplies, are pushing commercial agriculture across Africa, as is China, deeply concerned about its food security.

This race for land is a race for food, a second wave of colonialism, as we now have a global market for our most basic staples such as wheat and rice.

Norman Berlaug, who died in 2009, won a noble peace prize for his efforts to improve global agriculture. Though controversial figure perhaps noone else has done more to feed the world – he is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation – through improving the yields of Wheat.

In 2005 he said “we will have to double the world food supply by 2050.”

And in 1997

“Africa, the former Soviet republics, and the cerrado are the last frontiers. After they are in use, the world will have no additional sizable blocks of arable land left to put into production, unless you are willing to level whole forests, which you should not do. So, future food-production increases will have to come from higher yields. And though I have no doubt yields will keep going up, whether they can go up enough to feed the population monster is another matter. Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong, the next century will experience sheer human misery that, on a numerical scale, will exceed the worst of everything that has come before”

Now with food riots in many countries, are we reaching this ‘nightmare’? Have we closed this frontier?

Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist Thomas Friedman writing in the New York Times this week the earth is full quotes approvingly the Paul Gilding of the Global Footprint Network, promoting his new book “The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.”

‘You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, …floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?

We’re currently caught in two loops: One is that more population growth and more global warming together are pushing up food prices; rising food prices cause political instability in the Middle East, which leads to higher oil prices, which leads to higher food prices, which leads to more instability. At the same time, improved productivity means fewer people are needed in every factory to produce more stuff. So if we want to have more jobs, we need more factories. More factories making more stuff make more global warming, and that is where the two loops meet”.

This series will test to what extent this thesis is correct. It looks at this concept – of capitalisms food frontier, back through history and how it has been shaped by food crises from the past. How different theories, dismal and hopeful, light up different sides of the issue.  It will show the limits of capitalism, but how those limits have been overcome.

It will be written from a radical green perspective but will thrown up a few surprises, their is hope, their is a way out, we can feed the world, and we might even be able to do some shopping after dinner.

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