Popular Science Monthly/Volume 85/August 1914/Available Food Supplies


By Professor J. F. LYMAN


THE food problem is distinctly a modern one in the United States. Two generations ago no such problem was clearly recognized. Fish were plentiful; pigeons, deer, wild turkeys, water-fowl, quail and buffalo were abundant; wild berries, fruits and nuts could be obtained easily and in large quantities. Naturally food was cheap and there was enough for all, and of a kind sufficiently varied to suit the taste of any. All this has changed. Game animals have practically disappeared. Wild berries, fruits and nuts are no longer of importance in our dietaries. We have seen our population increase at the rate of over twenty per cent, every ten years until the increase in production of food products no longer keeps pace, but lags far behind, and we realize that there is such a thing as a food problem.

If the present rate of increase continues, the population of the United States will approximate five hundred million at the end of the present century. Is it possible to feed that number of persons on the products of our three million square miles? China and India both support a population as dense; but both of these countries are distinctly agricultural. The mass of people live on the land and are engaged in producing food. In this country the great increase in population is in the cities; while the food-producing class is increasing comparatively slowly. The reports on agricultural products exported from the United States illuminate the food problem in an instructive way. If we compare the exports in 1912 with those for 1900, we find that the amount of cheese shipped abroad declined 85 per cent, in that period, beef products declined 65 per cent., pork products declined 30 per cent., corn declined 80 per cent., wheat declined 57 per cent. What do these figures tell? Simply that we have needed the food at home to supply our increasing millions and hence had less to sell in the markets of the world. Can we continue to feed our people by reducing the exports in food stuffs? Obviously not, and in many instances they have been reduced already near the vanishing point. We have even actually begun to import meat and corn. It is significant also that free government land suitable for agricultural purposes is no longer available; hence we can not look for relief by bringing under the plow large tracts of virgin soil.

Is there likely, then, to be a scarcity of food in this country in the near future? No, there is and will be plenty of food, but some changes in dietaries undoubtedly will have to be made. Let us notice. In 1910 for every man, woman and child in the United States there was produced seven bushels of wheat, thirty-two bushels of corn, four bushels of potatoes, and forty pounds of sugar. There were six tenths cattle for each person, six tenths sheep, and seven tenths swine. Add to this the fruits, vegetables, poultry and dairy products, oats, and other small grains and we see that there is plenty of food to go around and to spare.

There was grown in the United States in 1912 corn, which if assembled in one immense field might have covered Germany or France entirely with its rustling phalanx. How many millions might be nourished by the produce of this tremendous acreage! Here is a great source of human food at present utilized in a very slight degree.

Man takes food first of all that pleases the palate. We can no longer make our choices on the basis of palatability alone, and a study of the principles of nutrition must be pursued to help us out of those difficulties which arise from a restricted supply of food. Food has two primary functions in the body; first, to supply material out of which the body is built; and, second, to furnish energy to warm the body and to drive its machinery. Perhaps the second function is the more important. Plants alone have the power to collect solar energy and store it up in a latent or dormant form in their seeds and other parts. Animals may, by eating and digesting these plant materials, liberate and utilize this stored-up energy. When corn is fed to a steer under favorable conditions three per cent, of the energy of the corn may be recovered as meat in the edible portion of the carcass. The remaining ninety seven per cent, was used by the animal in its various activities and lost as far as the nutrition of man is concerned. In pork the recovered portion amounts to sixteen per cent.; and with the dairy cow eighteen per cent, of the energy of the food is found in the milk produced. Obviously this is a wasteful process, this conversion of grain into meat and milk. It has its justification only in the greater palatability and digestibility of the final products. Doctor Armsby, of the Pennsylvania Experiment Station, draws the conclusion: "all the edible products which the farmer's acres can yield will be needed for human consumption and the function of the stock-feeder in a permanent system of agriculture will be to utilize those inedible products in which so large a share of the solar energy is held and to render at least. a portion of the latter available for human use."

But shall we solve our food problem as it has been handled in some densely populated countries such as India and China? With an area nearly twice that of either of these countries, the capacity of the United States to maintain a population on the same standard as obtains in China, for instance, would be perhaps relatively as great. It would mean a great change in our standard of living, one to which we should not take kindly, and one which we hope need never be adopted in this country. What would the liberty-loving American think had he to subsist on the restricted fare of the Chinaman as described by Mr. Chester Holcombe in "The Real Chinaman."

Their daily food consists of rice steamed, cabbage boiled in an unnecessarily large amount of water, and, for a relish, a few bits of raw turnip, pickled in a strong brine. When disposed to be very extravagant and reckless of expense, they buy a cash worth of dried watermelon seeds, and munch them as dessert. . . . The description answers with entire accuracy for the food consumption of the great masses of the Chinese people—not for the beggars or the very poor, but for the common classes of industrious workingmen and their families, whether in the great cities or in the rural districts. . . . The only luxuries of which they dream are an ounce or two of meat at very rare intervals with their invariable food of rice and cabbage, and the necessary tea and tobacco.

Or would the fare of India please better? Colonel Sir Thomas H. Holditch tells us:

Probably three fourths of the entire population live on the grain of the millets, or various kinds of pulse. In lower Bengal, and in parts of Madras and Bombay, in Burma and Ceylon, rice is the staple food of the people, . . . elsewhere it is reserved for the consumption of the wealthy.

Even in Greece the food supply is much restricted, for we read in the Consular Report on Industrial Conditions by Horton, 1908:

At night the family dines on a few cents worth of rice, boiled together with wild greens and olive oil, and bread, or wild greens boiled in olive oil and eaten with bread or some similar inexpensive dish. Meat is eaten by the laboring classes as a general thing three times a year, Christmas, Easter and on the so-called "Birth of the Virgin." Such a family as I am describing, the average laboring man's family of Greece, rarely if ever see such things as butter, eggs and milk.

The corn crop alone of the United States in 1912 was sufficient to supply nourishment for two hundred and thirty million people living on the standard maintained by the working class in China, India and some other countries. The American, however, in general has never appeared to relish corn as a direct article of food. A prejudice has prevailed that corn was unfit for human food and useful only in the barn and stable for their less discriminating occupants. The reports of government experts to the effect that corn is as digestible and nutritious as wheat have apparently made few converts to the greater use of corn. But we shall learn to eat more corn, not because we are told of its nourishing qualities, but because it will be prepared in an attractive form and because it will be cheap.

Machinery has been perfected for the milling of wheat so that the digestible portions are separated from the indigestible and a superior human food prepared. Wheat flour stands supreme among the cereal flours and it is likely to maintain this position, still it is undoubtedly in the development of industrial processes that we shall find the solution of the problem of economically converting corn and similar products into human food which will be palatable and nourishing. A good beginning has already been made in the manufacture of starch and glucose as well as breakfast flakes from corn. These and similar industries are bound to grow rapidly. Nor is corn the only material which might be appropriated directly as human food and which is used at present little or not at all for that purpose. Oats, barley, rye, soy beans and peanuts and various by-products such as cottonseed and linseed cake might be utilized more largely. Modern science will very likely devise methods for extracting the valuable constituents from these products in such a way that they will be available for human food in an attractive form and nourish man in a state of highest efficiency. Some progress has already been made along this line, but it is barely a beginning.

Does this mean that we shall all in time turn vegetarian? No, there will always be food for domestic animals and meat and dairy and poultry products will always be important items of human diet. The grasses, clovers, straws, stovers, and certain by-products of the refining processes of seeds, etc., will always be directly unavailable as food for man and can probably best be utilized by converting them into animal products of various kinds. The amount of meat consumed, doubtless, will decline and a reduction in this respect may take place without danger and without detriment to the race.

Long ago Daniel, the prophet, and his companions demonstrated the virtue of a simple vegetable diet when they refused to eat the king's meat and wine, provided for the boys of the court, and chose rather pulse and water. At the end of the training period, when the boys were examined, the faces of the Hebrew children were found to be plumper and their minds more alert and keen than those of their companions who had dined more sumptuously, but who had, perhaps, studied less diligently.

The study of human nutrition has not yet produced a simple formula for man's guidance in the selection of his food. Such formulas have been successfully used in the feeding of rats, and the skillful stockman in his feeding operations carefully follows charts and rules provided him by experts on animal nutrition. We may expect that similar rules will obtain more and more in human nutrition and there will be, some time in the future, such a thing as scientific feeding of men.