Food Security and Property Rights

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations recently released a report on global food emergencies. They concluded that in the year 2000 about 842 million people were chronically hungry.

Many factors cause such shortages of food. But, true to form, the FAO blamed the rich nations of the world for them. The report completely neglects to mention the role of internal problems inherent in Third World countries.

The report correctly blasted agricultural subsidies in the United States and the various restrictions that rich countries place on imports from impoverished countries. But that’s only part of the story.

What the FAO completely, and probably wilfully, ignored was the issue of property rights and the role of private farms in providing food security. Trade policies in rich countries certainly inhibit farm trade, but it is the almost fanatical opposition to private farms and the lack of any genuine protection of property rights in much of the developing world that cause starvation.

In the former Soviet Union, private farm plots provided much of the food, while the output from state-run farms was never enough to feed the country. The FAO pointed out that about 34 million people in the former Soviet bloc suffer from chronic hunger. That happens in a region with thousands of hectares of some of the richest farmland on earth, especially in The Ukraine.

Without a system of property rights and properly functioning free markets, these countries are doomed to perpetual hunger. Indeed, food emergencies, as the FAO reported, are caused by “bad politics.” But it’s definitely not for the reasons given in their report.

In a November 26, 1997 article in the Wall Street Journal, Robert A. Sirico of the Acton Institute pointed out that the new Plymouth Colony, formed in 1620 in what is now Massachussetts, “experimented” for three years with pastures and farmland that were held in common by all settlers. During that period, the colony experienced an epidemic of “economic chaos, disease, and starvation.” Governor William Bradford, decided to assign land to each family and in his own words, “This had very good success for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content.”

At that time, North America was essentially an undeveloped Third World country, but all it took to create food security were property rights and markets. This was the first New World privatization.

It is an irrefutable fact that no free market democracy has ever faced a famine. Even countries with no farmland, like Singapore and Hong Kong, have created vibrant economies and are able to purchase all the food they need. Chronic food shortages in Communist China disappeared within months after the strapped regime allowed farmers to keep and sell their crops.

The tiresome anti-market stance of the United Nations is getting a little hard to take. We can safely add chronic hunger to the long list of evils wrought by socialism and extreme government control.

The last word goes to Governor Bradford, who wrote about the vanity of the conceit “…that the taking away of property and bringing community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing.” He goes on to say that this system of common land “…was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.”

Private farms and open markets would stop starvation dead in its tracks.