THE WHEAT PROBLEM.*
POSTERITY, besides being commanded to restore impossible reputations, read unreadable books, and solve insoluble problems, is being threatened with starvation, the starvation both of cold and of hunger. The cold that is to follow the exhaustion of the world's coal is not a pressing danger. Oar own supplies are good for a couple of centuries, and there are huge fields scarcely touched elsewhere. Perhaps by the time that scarcity in this direction comes within measurable dis- tance we may have learnt to utilise vast natural forces, the orbital movement of the earth, for instance. But if Sir William Crookes is to be believed, scarcity of food is not by any meahs remote; it may come within sight of persons now alive, and these not very young. The case may be very easily stated. At present the deficiencies of the wheat-eating countries are supplied by North America, especially by the United States. In 1897-98 the wheat-crop of the United States was about 540,000,000 bushels. Of this quantity 217,000,000 bushels were exported to Europe, where no country, excepting Russia and Turkey, grows enough for its own population. The States are able to do this without trenching on the home supply because the total population is not more than seventy-five millions. In 1931, if the increase of population goes on at the same rate as that of the last thirty years, the seventy-five millions will have increased to a hundred and thirty millions, and the surplus for export will be no longer available. Whence, therefore, will the wants of the world be supplied ? Russia at present exports largely, the total being something more than two-fifths of that from the States. But it cannot be hoped that Russia will come to the rescue of a hungry world. It is already hungry itself, exporting food while its own people are starving. Any change here must be in the way of distribution. This change will be the more speedy because the Russian population, in spite of its sufferings, increases. Indeed, the difficulty of the general problem is aggravated by the fact that, up to the point of actual starvation, scarcity not only does not check, but actually stimulates, the rate of increase. A per- fectly well-fed, well-educated, and generally comfortable popu- lation has a tendency to diminish rather than to grow. The other exporting countries are Canada, Argentina, Northern Africa (including Egypt), Australasia, and India. The last of these is in much the same position as Russia. It has, or will soon have, to look at home. Australasia is an uncertain factor in the calculation. It seems that the wheat-crop there is liable to ruinous vicissitudes, even in regions where the general climatic conditions do not theoretically forbid its growth. Wheat, it is true, stands drought, the commonest and most persistent evil of Australasian agriculture, better than any other cereal, but a drought of two years or more is too much for it. Some of the talk about possibilities of this part of the world seems to have been very wild. One writer declared that there were in Queensland alone fifty millions of acres that might be brought under wheat. At present not a three-hundredth part of this area has been cultivated for this crop, and even this has not been thought worth harvesting more than twice in recent years. Queensland, in fact, is mostly tropical, and wheat does not flourish in the tropics. According to Sir William Crookes, only a small portion of the southern littoral is suited to this growth. The same cause of unsuit- able climate, though of a wholly different kind, excludes Canada from the list of the great wheat-growing countries. Wheat requires a mean temperature of 65° for fifty-five to sixty-five days to ripen properly, though a lower mean will suffice if the time be prolonged, In Western Canada, for the possibilities of the Eastern regions are already known. this condition of temperature cannot be counted on. The great elevation of one region of which much was at one time expected makes it liable to destructive falls of temperature. In the North-West there is no month of the year in which frosts may not occur, and the grain is not unfrequently frozen before it can be garnered. Snow in harvest is a deplorably common phenomenon.
So far, no doubt, Sir William Crookes makes out a strong case. As to producing countries, however, he underrates, we think, the possibilities of the regions which, as he reminds us, were once the granary of Rome. Egypt, it is true, grows
• The Trheat Problem. By Sir Williaua Crookes, F.R.S. London : John Murray. [3s. ea.] cotton, and Algeria and Tunis grow wine. Bnt let wheat once rise to the remunerative price which even the most distant prospect of scarcity would bring about, cotton and wine and everything else would give way to man's most press- ing want. And if the whole Northern coast-line of Africa were brought under really civilised rule, the region would become again a great factor in the corn supply of the world. The 5,000,000 bushels allowed (p. 30) would have to be multi- plied many times, for at 15 bushels per acre this accounts for little more than five hundred square miles, and the coast-line from El Arish to Tangier is more than two thousand. Still, it must be conceded that the retirement of the United States from the export market could not be compensated by bringing under wheat cultivation an equivalent area elsewhere. But, it may be asked, how about the States themselves ? Is there any considerable amount of land which would be available for wheat did the cultivators find it worth while to grow it ? We have a detailed answer to the question by the Hon. John Hyde, Statistician-in-Chief to the Department of Agriculture in the States, and the answer is, on the whole, discouraging. Some considerations still remain to be urged on the other side. Other food-grains might partially take the place of wheat. It is possible, for instance, that if the use of electricity largely displaces horse labour much additional food might be made available for man. It is not improbable, also, that the stock in hand and the harvests are habitually under- estimated. It is certainly strange that if the world had fallen back so largely on its reserves, wheat should be so cheap as it is at present. The possibility of difficulties with the United States sent up the price by leaps and bounds, but the prospect, really far more formidable, of a general shortage seems to have no effect.
But what hopes does our author hold out to us that this terrible doom may not overtake mankind ? "Starvation," he says, " may be averted through the laboratory." This does not mean by any production of artificial food. No approach has been made to that achievement, and the making of it in any quantity worthy of consideration seems out of the question. Bat in artificially increasing the growth of natural food there are large possibilities. If, for instance, the average growth of the United States could be made to equal the average growth of the United Kingdom, the amount left free for export would be increased from 215,000,000 to nearly 1,000,000,000 bushels ; if the higher average of Denmark could be reached another 500,000.000 would be added, with the result of a very long reprieve to mankind. (The average of the States is 12 bushels per acre, of the United Kingdom 29.1, of Denmark 41.8.)
How is this result to be achieved By the copious use of nitrogen. And where is the nitrogen to come from ? It is found in guano ; but then the guano deposits are nearly exhausted. It exists in large quantities in the sewage which we now waste, or rather lose, for no satisfactory way of utilising it has yet been formulated. And it is to be found in various other substances, none of them, however, suggest- ing a really hopeful solution of the problem. Bat the great mass of the element is in the atmosphere, seven tons for every square yard of the earth's surface. To fix this by some cheap process is, we are told, the object which the chemist is to set before him. In this is the hope of mankind's deliver- ance from starvation.
Among many reflections that this subject suggests, one of the most obvious is this,—if there is any truth in Sir William Crookes's prognostications, do they not deal a very serious blow to the vegetarians ? (These enthusiasts, by the way, have become very aggressive of late. The writer of this review heard a few weeks ago a preacher of this persuasion enlarge to a mid-day City congregation on the barbarity of flesh- eating.) What a huge quantity of food they remove from the stores of the world ! Some of this loss might be made good by turning pastures into arable, but there are millions of acres which grow good mutton but would not produce an ear of corn. And then all the fish food, thousands of tons yearly, would be lost altogether. Of course, if flesh- eating is morally wrong, we must submit (though the most fanatic vegetarian would not demand the adhesion of the Esquimaux); but if it is a matter of expediency, the possibility of a shortage of corn tells heavily against the theory.