American Farmers So Productive That We Went From Starvation To Obesity

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Posted: Feb 11, 2019 11:46 AM
American Farmers So Productive That We Went From Starvation To Obesity

This is America – the place with the most abundant source of food ever in history.  We are to a point, unprecedented and unparalleled in this history of mankind, where we struggle with obesity, not starvation.  We are so prosperous that we eat too much as an entire nation.  Obesity is a problem among our poor.  Understand that statement – obesity is a problem among our poor.  When in the history of the world has obesity been an issue for the poor?   Never until the prosperity of the Shining City.  For the first time, a paradox exists between the poor and provisions – the poor of the United States are overfed.

On average, “the [American poor] family was not hungry” and that the “major dietary problems facing poor Americans is eating too much, not too little,”[1] observe economists Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield who annually study American levels of wealth.

In agriculture alone, “The United States feeds three times as many people with one-third as many total farmers on one-third less farmland than in 1900.”[2]  This data is from 2000, so it has improved substantially even since then.  American Exceptionalism has propelled the Unites States to the most agriculturally productive civilization on the planet.  “In 1988 output per worker in the United States was more than 35 times higher than the output per worker in Niger.  In just over ten days the average worker in the United States produced as much as the average worker in Niger produced in an entire year….Differences among countries can be attributed to differences in human capital, physical capital and productivity.”[3]

“’Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.  Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.’”[4]

So how has America achieved such astonishing improvement?  That is; how have we tested God, as He asked us to do, and how did He provide as He said he would?  Productivity.   The American agricultural industry has achieved productivity improvements at a scale unprecedented in the history of civilization.  While the storyline goes as such; the America family farmer continues to decrease in number.   This is because the American family farmer is a productivity machine.  Simply put – not as many are needed to produce food products for more people at less cost,[5] as the quote above from Moore and Simon succinctly points out.  The Puritan work ethic is alive and well on America’s farms.  America’s farms shine nourishment out into the world.

Plenty of data exists to support these points.  From 1950 to 2009 productivity on American farms as output per unit of labor input increased by 11.9 times.[6]  This is an astounding improvement.  The late Dr. Bruce Gardner of the University of Maryland, who extensively studied the history of U.S. agriculture, wrote that “Between 1930 and 2000 U.S. agricultural output approximately quadrupled” and that “Real food prices paid by consumers also decreased.  The percent of disposable income spent on food prepared at home decreased, from 22 percent as late as 1950 to 7 percent by the end of the century,[7] and continued downward, reaching 5.7 percent on food at home and remaining constant as a percentage of disposable income even though food prices increased from 2005 to 2007.[8]

This immense improvement in productivity in farming was the combined result of technology improvements in grain hybrids, fertilizer and pesticide advancements, storage methods, livestock breeding advancements, machinery developments, and planting and harvesting techniques.  “Technological progress in farming results in less input per unit output, fewer and larger farms, and lower costs of production.”[9]  These technology advancements continue every year in agriculture and on farms across the entire country.

Productivity improvements are the largest driver behind the fact that there are fewer and fewer farms in the United States, and that less than 2 percent of the population[10] was farming by the end of the 20th century.  In fact the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that American farm output in 2009 had increased by 170 percent since 1948 while growing at an average annual rate of 1.63 percent.[11]  And from 1960, “Every State exhibited a positive average annual rate of productivity growth over the entire 45-year period [1960 to 2005],”[12] averaging an annual growth of 1.85 percent across the country as a whole.[13]  The USDA calls agricultural productivity the “most important source of economic growth” in U.S. agriculture, attributing 80 percent of farm sector growth to it from the years 1977 to 2000.[14]

Farmers of the United States shine in so many ways.  Their capability constantly improves substantially year-in-and-year-out.  From 1940 to 2011 the number of persons fed per farmer grew nearly by an astounding nine-fold; feeding 18.5 persons per farmer in 1940 to feeding 161 persons in 2011.[15]  This massive increase in output through extensive productivity improvements occurred while the number of Americans involved in farming dramatically decreased; dropping from 39.2 percent of the population living on farms down to a tiny 1.1 percent by 2000.[16]  Meanwhile, the percent of disposable personal income has significantly decreased from 24.2 percent in 1930 (prior to the Great Depression) to 9.4 percent in 2010 of both in-home and out-of-home expenditures.[17]  American farmers are an amazing triumph of human civilization and American ingenuity.

With the farming and agricultural methods and technology used in the United States it is estimated that our capacity and capability to produce food, clothing, and shelter can accommodate nearly 12 billion people; and, based on ample calorie output per acre, U.S. techniques can produce a surplus of 2.3 times the estimate world population in 2050.[18]  The citizenry of the United States spent substantially less per person on food than any other nation on the planet.  Where the United States is at 6.8 percent of expenditures spent on food consumed at home by 2010, other industrial nations spend two, three and even four times more.   Germany spends 11.0 percent, Japan spends 14.8 percent, China spends 22.3 percent and Russia spends 29.0 percent.[19]

In their study, researchers Mary Ahearn, Jet Yee, Eldon Ball, and Rich Nehring explain how the United States’ productivity generates prosperity, not only in agricultural output, but contributes to other sectors of economic performance in America.  They tell us:

The U.S. farm sector has provided an abundance of output while using inputs efficiently.   Increased productivity improves society’s general standard of living because productivity gains are passed on to the consumer in the form of lower product prices.  If productivity levels in a sector of the economy rise, resources will be released for use by other sectors of the economy.  In the case of agriculture, the high levels of productivity have freed up resources that would otherwise have been used to meet basic food needs of the population.[20]

Ahearn, Yee, Ball, and Nehrings’ analysis show that from 1948 to 1994 total agricultural productivity has improved by 245 percent.[21]  While labor input over the same period (1948 to 1994) dropped by more than half, going from 7.6 million people in 1948 to 3.4 million in 1994.[22]  Labor hours dropped dramatically as well, reduced nearly 80 percent.[23]  This is utterly stunning improvements.

In his book, American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century, Dr. Bruce Gardner shows the crop output per acre has increased spectacularly from 1910 to 1995 increasing 400 percent,[24] and a stunning 1700 percent since 1840.[25]  The average farm family’s income, during the period of 1950 to 2000, rose “from below to above that of nonfarm families.”[26]

America has reached new heights in food production currently and historically.  America is not the breadbasket of the world, but the supermarket colossus of manna from heaven.  No civilization has ever produced the amount, variety, quality, and consistency of food before in the history of mankind.  America is truly exceptional in feeding itself and the world.

[1] Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, July 18, 2011, “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What Is Poverty in the United States Today?” Executive Summary Backgrounder, No. 2575, (Washington DC: The Heritage Foundation), p. Executive Summary.

[2] Stephen Moore and Julian L. Simon, 2000, It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years, (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute), p. 94.  Also see Jim Huntzinger, 2016, Deflation:  The Road to Prosperity, (Indianapolis, IN: Lean Frontiers, Inc.), for further discussion of America’s agriculture productivity advancements.

[3] Robert E. Hall and Charles I. Jones, February, 1999, “Why Do Some Countries Produce So Much More Output Per Worker Than Others?”, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 114, No. 1, p. 83.  For reference to productivity differences between countries see the National Bureau of Economic Research version of this article, Robert E. Hall and Charles I. Jones, May 1998, “Why Do Some Countries Produce So Much More Output Per Worker Than Others?”, Working Paper 6564, (National Bureau of Economic Research: Cambridge, MA), pp. 47-49, Table 7

[4] Guideposts, The Guideposts Parallel Bible (Carmel, NY: Guideposts), New International, Malachi 3:10, p. 2436.

[5] Note from the author.  I grew up on a farm in the Midwest in a farming community.  My family still farms quite successfully.  I know the state of farming, behavior of farmers, progress of farming (technology and methods), and dynamics of the agriculture market firsthand.

[6] Economic Report of the President, February 2012, (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office), p. 432, Table B-99.

[7] Bruce Gardner, March 20, 2003, "U.S. Agriculture in the Twentieth Century," EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples, [http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/gardner.agriculture.us].  Also cited in Bruce L. Gardner, 2002, American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century: How It Flourished and What It Cost, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), p. 2.

[8] Annette Clauson, September 2008, “Despite Higher Food Prices, Percent of U.S. Income Spent on Food Remains Constant,” Amber Waves, Vol. 6, Issue 4, (Economic Research Service, USDA), p. 5.

[9] Bruce Gardner, March 20, 2003, "U.S. Agriculture in the Twentieth Century," EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples, [http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/gardner.agriculture.us].

[10] Bruce Gardner, March 20, 2003, "U.S. Agriculture in the Twentieth Century," EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples, [http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/gardner.agriculture.us].

[11] USDA Economic Research Service, accessed December 22, 2012, “Agricultural Productivity in the U.S.,” (United States Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC), see National Tables, 1948-2009, Table 1, [http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/agricultural-productivity-in-the-us.aspx#28247].

[12] USDA Economic Research Service, accessed December 22, 2012, “Agricultural Productivity in the U.S.,” (United States Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC), see Table 22, [http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/agricultural-productivity-in-the-us/documentation-and-methods.aspx].

[13] Eldon Ball, September 2008, “Agricultural Productivity Grew in Every State,” Amber Waves, Vol. 6, Issue 4, (Economic Research Service, USDA), p. 44.

[14] USDA Economic Research Service, accessed December 22, 2012, “Agricultural Productivity in the U.S.,” (United States Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC), see section The Role of Productivity Growth in Agriculture, [http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/agricultural-productivity-in-the-us/documentation-and-methods.aspx].

[15] Mary Wilkins and Allison Carr, 2012, “Farm & Food Facts ‘12,” (Bloomington, IL: Information Research Center, Illinois Farm Bureau), p. 41, Persons Fed Per Farmer graph.

[16] Mary Wilkins and Allison Carr, 2012, “Farm & Food Facts ‘12,” (Bloomington, IL: Information Research Center, Illinois Farm Bureau), p. 25, Trends in U.S. Agriculture table.

[17] Mary Wilkins and Allison Carr, 2012, “Farm & Food Facts ‘12,” (Bloomington, IL: Information Research Center, Illinois Farm Bureau), p. 44, Percent of Income Spent on Food in the U.S. graph.

[18] Jeremy Gernand, February 4, 2011, “The Earth Can Feed, Cloth, and House 12 Billion People,” True Progress, [http://true-progress.com/the-earth-can-feed-clothe-and-house-12-billion-people-306.htm].

[19] Mary Wilkins and Allison Carr, 2012, “Farm & Food Facts ‘12,” (Bloomington, IL: Information Research Center, Illinois Farm Bureau), p. 45, What Other Countries Spent on Food in 2010 graph.

[20] Ahearn, Mary, Jet Yee, Eldon Ball, and Rich Nehring, with contributions by Agapi Somwaru and Rachel Evans, January 1998, “Agricultural Productivity in the United States,” Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 740, (United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Washington, DC), p. iii.

[21] Ahearn, Mary, Jet Yee, Eldon Ball, and Rich Nehring, with contributions by Agapi Somwaru and Rachel Evans, January 1998, “Agricultural Productivity in the United States,” Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 740, (United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Washington, DC), pp. 4-5, see Table 1.

[22] Ahearn, Mary, Jet Yee, Eldon Ball, and Rich Nehring, with contributions by Agapi Somwaru and Rachel Evans, January 1998, “Agricultural Productivity in the United States,” Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 740, (United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Washington, DC), p. 8.

[23] Ahearn, Mary, Jet Yee, Eldon Ball, and Rich Nehring, with contributions by Agapi Somwaru and Rachel Evans, January 1998, “Agricultural Productivity in the United States,” Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 740, (United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Washington, DC), p. 9, see Figure 5.

[24] Bruce L. Gardner, 2002, American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century: How It Flourished and What It Cost, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), p. 22, see Figure 2.5.

[25] Bruce L. Gardner, 2002, American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century: How It Flourished and What It Cost, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), p. 5, see Figure 1.2.

[26] Bruce L. Gardner, 2002, American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century: How It Flourished and What It Cost, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), p. 2.