The federal government is nibbling at the cheese glut. The Agriculture Department has proposed requiring that frozen pizzas contain a certain minimum amount of cheese and that the use of cheese substitutes be clearly confessed on packages.
The frozen pizza industry regards this proposal as the kind of Leninism that Ronald Reagan was elected to stop. But the cheese glut (which is just a portion of the dairy products surplus, which is just a bit of the agriculture surplus) demands boldness.
Jeffrey Birnbaum, a Wall Street Journal reporter, recently toured a dormant limestone mine in Missouri. There, the government "stores so much surplus cheese, butter and powdered milk that a visitor would be hard pressed to walk past it all in one day." A tour by golf cart reveals canyons of cheddar cheese in 500-pound barrels, towers of frozen butter in 68-pound boxes, endless aisles of 100-pound sacks of dried milk--61 million pounds of dairy products, enough to cover 13 football fields 17 feet deep, or fill a train stretching from Manhattan to Toledo.
This is just two percent of the 2.9 billion pounds of dairy products that taxpayers have bought. In recent years they have paid $3 billion, or $13,000 for every dairy farmer. Taxpayers are currently paying $275,000 an hour to buy more surpluses, and are paying $5 million a month to store the stuff.
Well, now. Perhaps a dozen-trillion pizzas would cut the current cheese glut, but that many pizzas would lead to a terrible pepperoni shortage. We need another idea.
Perhaps we should sell frozen pizzas to the Soviet Union. Moscow might send some of our pizzas, as it sends grain, to Nicaragua, but that is commerce in fungible goods. If Moscow cannot afford the pizzas, we can do what we do regarding grain: give them credits and generally fiddle things so that pizzas (like the grain) cost Moscow less than it costs Americans to produce them.
Here is another whimsical idea: we could stop paying farmers to inundate markets and limestone mines with dairy products. Today the government is taxing consumers (everyone) to pay farmers to produce food that is, because of price supports, unnecessarily expensive when taxpayers buy it at supermarkets and is expensive when taxpayers pay to store it.
One study says that a $1-per-hundredweight reduction in the support price would knock nine cents off a gallon of milk and a pound of cheese, and 11 cents off a pound of butter, and $1.2 billion off consumers' food bills in a year. Furthermore, dairy products, being cheaper, would be more exportable, so there would be less to store.
But here is a better idea: use the food as food. America does not have enough productivity. Government should not pay people, as it today is paying farmers, to produce less--less of something that parts of the world need desperately. Surely it is not beyond the capacity of public policy to make America's agricultural bounty an asset to American policy. Indeed, it is a scandal not to.
Today in 18 black African countries (Morocco and Algeria, too, have desperate needs), 20 million persons face starvation unless 600,000 tons of extra food reach them. Since 1960, Africa's food production has increased less than 2 percent a year--less than population growth. In nine countries, food production is more than 10 percent below 1960 levels.
The World Bank estimates that nearly 200 million persons--60 percent of all Africans-- eat fewer calories daily than the United Nations considers a survival diet.
Drought is only part of the problem. Governments have made Africa unnecessarily vulnerable to such natural phenomena. Urban mobs demand food at artificially low prices, thus discouraging production. Government planners have tried to spur industrialization by holding down food prices in the hope that this would hold down urban wages. If someone could leash Africa's governments and unleash American farmers on Africa, the continent could produce 100 times more food than it does today.
Logistical problems (including problems posed by African bureaucracies) involved in even distributing food are staggering, and there is the danger that American food could produce dependency and further depress African agriculture. But an American attempt to solve these problems is as close as one can come in this world to an absolute moral imperative.
I am staring at a photograph of what looks, at first glance, to be a bald, wizened old man. Actually it is a child. The child is sucking the withered breast of a woman who could be 19 years old. It is a sight to concentrate the mind on limestone mines full of food.