United States the “World’s Breadbasket” No More

There was a time when the United States was known as the “World’s Breadbasket.” It’s “amber waves of grain” and “fruited plains” – noted in the first verse of “America the Beautiful” – supplied food wherever it was needed anywhere in the world. Even the Soviet Union turned to the U.S. for grain when its own harvests fell short of its needs.

Now, it seems that the “… pilgrim feet, whose stern, impassioned stress a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness” – from the 2nd verse of the same song, written originally in 1893 when the U.S. population was 65 million people – have grown the “alabaster cities” of the fourth verse to the point where we are the “World’s Breadbasket” no more. With a population of five times larger than when that song was written, we can’t even feed our own people any more.

At least that’s what our trade data tells us. Look at this chart. The category of foods, feeds and beverages – agricultural products – was once a bright spot in America’s ever-darkening trade picture. We always had a surplus for export to feed the world’s hungry, but no more. Our balance of trade in agriculture products has steadily eroded to the point where we’ve now run a deficit for the fourth year in a row. It improved a little in 2020 but, as you can see, it’s on a downward trajectory.

I have always steered clear of the subject of overpopulation in terms of resource shortages. Thomas Malthus hypothesized in 1798 that the world’s population would outstrip its ability to produce food. As decades wore on and the food supply grew even faster than the population, the other sciences mocked economists and proclaimed that mankind is clever enough to overcome all obstacles to further population growth. That has certainly proven true so far and may be true to a point, but any thinking person knows that there will eventually come a tipping point. In fact, it was only by ignoring the possibility of resource shortages and by pondering what else might happen as the population continues to grow that I was able to discover the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption – and its ramifications for worsening unemployment and poverty.

Nevertheless, I can’t help taking note of this trade data for agricultural products. Mind you, I’m no expert in the subject. One could argue that there are many other factors involved. Federal agriculture policy such as price supports, policies that encourage farmers to allow fields to lie fallow, etc. may all be playing a part here. Whether or not that explains the deficit in agriculture, I can’t say.

However, the data doesn’t lie. For the past four years, America is growing increasingly dependent on imports to feed its ever-growing population. That should be cause for concern for everyone. It’s bad enough that America is dependent on imports for virtually all things manufactured. That makes us weak and vulnerable. Being dependent on others for our food supply is far worse. Having enough to eat is a matter of total food production divided by the total population. Both factors need to be considered if we’re going to rectify this situation. It isn’t enough to simply consider how to boost production. (Do we really want more genetically-modified crops, more pesticides in our produce and more hormones in our meat?) It’s time to consider whether the number of “pilgrim feet” and whether the size of our “alabaster cities” has begun to overwhelm our “fruited plains.”

Immigrants, take note. Bring some grain and fruit with you, because we’re all out.

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