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Long-term Planning Keeps the World Fed

Author: Bruce Stokes

National Journal


This harvest season twenty-five years ago, the world seemed trapped in a Malthusian nightmare. Faced with famine in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Indian sub-continent and a global population of 4 billion that threatened to double by the end of the century, the New York Times editorialized that "continued failure to curb population and increase food production will lead inevitably to disaster". In August, the United Nations convened both a World Population Conference in Bucharest to devise a plan to slow population growth and in November an emergency World Food Conference in Rome, where then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger promised that "within a decade no child will go to bed hungry".

What a difference a quarter century makes. World population did not double. And the Spector of global famine has receded. "We overreacted to a short-term shortage in global food supply," said Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. "All the things that came together in the early 1970s that caused an increase in food prices were an unlikely situation. But because we overreacted we took steps to avoid it happening again."

But before doomsdayish visions of the future are totally supplanted by Milennial optimism, it is sobering to remind ourselves that world food stocks are not much greater today than they were in 1974, that improvement in grain yields has slowed dramatically this decade, that this year India joined China as the second nation with more than a billion mouths to feed, and, that, despite Kissinger's pledge, there are still 800 million hungry people in the world, largely in Africa. Most alarmingly, public complacency has displaced anxiety. Funding for family planning programs and agricultural research has stagnated. Clearly, the lessons of 1974 have yet to be learned.

To be sure, the population/food equation is now decidedly more complex than it was two-and-a-half decades ago. Global grain prices are at record lows, thanks to a fall off in demand attributable to the Asian economic crisis. World population did surpass 6 billion this year. But the annual global population growth rate has slowed to 1.3 per cent from 1.7 per cent in 1974, because a majority of couples now use family planning. "Women needed to know that their kids were going to live," said Amy Coen, president of Population Action International, a Washington-based advocacy group. "As soon as they were convinced about that, they didn't want to have eight kids."

Nonetheless, disturbing trends trouble the horizon. World grain production per capita is not much higher than it was in 1974. The amount of land under the plow is no greater. "India has tripled yields since 1950," noted Lester R. Brown, president of the Washington-based think tank Worldwatch Institute. "They can't triple them again." In fact, insufficient water for irrigation could eventually cut Indian harvests by 25 per cent, according to David Seckler, head of the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute. Global warming is causing fluctuations in weather patterns that are likely to lead to future swings in food production. Developing new high yielding varieties of grain would boost harvests. But mounting public opposition to genetic manipulation of food is a stumbling block.

Most important, said Dennis Avery, director of global food issues at the Hudson Institute, "the food challenge of the future is one of affluence." Global meat consumption has doubled since 1974 and much of the world's grain production is now used as animal feed, posing new competition for grain supplies. "Its a matter of choices," said Brown. "The world can support 2.5 billion people eating an American diet or 10 billion people eating a Chinese diet."

With the sense of impending crisis now a generation old, world attention is flagging. Funding for the international agricultural research centers, which in the 1960s gave us the Green Revolution, grew by less than 1 per cent per year in real terms from 1985 to 1996, after growing by 14 per cent per year in the 1970s. In the United States, spending on agricultural research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state governments has actually declined in the 1990s in real terms.

Family planning funding has hardly fared better. U.S. foreign aid for contraceptive services was $112.4 million in 1974, peaked at $188.2 million in 1995 (in inflation-adjusted dollars) and is now only $122.4 million. This represents a 9 per cent increase in real funding even though world population has increased 50 per cent and there are now more women of childbearing age than ever before.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana warned that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Before the lessons of 1974 are consigned to the history books, it would be best to remember the precarious nature of the food-population equation, that the world is never more than one or two bad harvests away from a crisis and that the struggle to keep food and population in balance is an ongoing one.