This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. A copy of the text of this speech exists in the Senate Speech file of the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers here at the John F. Kennedy Library.
There is no better example of short-sightedness than this Administration’s attitude toward so-called farm surpluses. Their whole policy is based on the assumption that we have too much cropland, too much food and fiber production, and no need to protect existing farms or develop new arable land. This conception of our farm problem is unbelievably narrow. A few years ago a study showed that it took three acres of good cropland to supply the average person with adequate nutrition. Today, with more than 175 million people, we barely meet this minimum standard. But, more importantly, we are losing four hundred thousand acres of cropland every year by erosion. We are losing one million acres of cropland every year to our growing cities, airports, reservoirs, highways, factories and military reservations. And most significantly of all, our population is growing at a rate, which will actually double the number of people in this country by the end of the century.
Farm abundance should be treated as a blessing and not as a curse. There are still one billion eight hundred million hungry people in the world. There are still tremendous possibilities for using food as a means of capital investment in underdeveloped countries, even in areas that have no food shortages. There are still markets in Europe and elsewhere buying less of our food stuffs than they did 20 years ago. Our nation – supposedly the richest and best nourished country on earth – still stands thirteenth in terms of milk and dairy product consumption, and fifth in terms of meat consumption per person.
And most important of all, the population of the world is multiplying at a rate that threatens to outrun the world’s capacity to produce food. Assuming that our entire food surplus this year were distributed around the world to all the hungry and needy, it would mean only the equivalent of approximately two teacups full of rice every 17 days for each hungry person. Even today there is not enough food available to provide an adequate diet for every person in the world.
In short, what Mr. Benson now complains about in terms of a food surplus could soon turn into a permanent food shortage – when there will only be one-half as many cropland acres in this country to supply our food needs. We dare not continue a course designed to abandon our soil, waste our water and cut back our cropland if we are to assure every American a minimum standard of nutrition for all time to come.
I recall very clearly the Congressional debate in 1951 over our shipment of wheat to India. Drought and famine were plaguing that country, teeming with some 350 million people. I am certain that you recall the picture described to us at that time – a nation which lacked the soil, water and food resources to provide for its own growing population – a nation which had either not conserved or fully developed its arable land, and which as a result faced a long period of pitiful living standards and economic stagnation. I hope we will continue to remember that picture in the years ahead – for the population of this country at the end of this century will, believe it or not, approximately equal that of India in 1951.
If we can but look at our farm abundance in this light, we see it as a national asset, not a liability – an asset which the Communists do not have and can’t obtain – a weapon more powerful for preserving the Free World than any in our arsenal of arms. And if we can but look at it in this light, there is not point in trying to sweep back the tide, to persuade farmers whose costs are largely fixed by family workers to earn less by growing less. One man hour of farm work today produces over three times as much corn and feed grains as 20 years ago. Let us not try to stop this trend – let us instead turn it to our advantage.
A sound policy for dealing with our farm abundance is dependent upon a program of full employment, a sound foreign trade policy, a program of assistance to needy people both at home and abroad, and a recognition of the need for expanded domestic consumption. First, we must fully exploit the domestic market for farm products. This means the expansion of school lunch programs and other nutritional assistance, a food distribution program that will provide the necessary nutrition for the 17 million Americans who are suffering from malnutrition, increased research into new uses for farm products and a fully employed labor force to purchase the farm products. Early this year I introduced a bill directing a full-scale attack on this matter of distributing surplus foods to the needy and hungry here at home. This bill would have taken this job out of the hands of Mr. Benson, who has shown little interest in it, and given it to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare that is responsible for those on pensions or public assistance. The bill was favorably reported by the Agriculture subcommittee which considered it – but in the full committee a majority of the Democratic members was blocked by Republicans more concerned about unbusinesslike donations than feeding the needy. We must continue the fight for this bill next year.
Secondly, our agriculture surpluses must be used with more imagination overseas – as a powerful instrument for aiding economic development, strengthening alliances and offering humanitarian assistance which increases the standard of living of less fortunate people.
In short, our food resources can be an important instrument for alleviating hunger, discontent, disorder and tension both at home and abroad. But to achieve this will require far more imagination and far bolder action that this problem has been given in the past seven years.