Washington — Can the world feed its next billion people? The Reagan administration considers that problem when it asks Congress for $1.9 billion in foreign aid -- part of it to promote the growing of more food, part of it to slow the growth of global population in years to come.
"Except for thermonuclear war," former World Bank president Robert S. McNamara warns, "population growth is the gravest issue the world faces over the decade immediately ahead."
With 4.6 billion passengers crowding spaceship Earth already, the number will grow by another 1.8 billion by the year 2000, according to some estimates, with the equivalent of a city the size of Des Moines (200,000) added every 24 hours, a country the size of West Germany (62 million) added every year.
Peter McPherson, administrator of the Agency for International Development, is remarkably frank when he asks foreign aid funds from the Senate-Committee on Appropriations. The United States, he says, "has played an important part in bringing about decreased population growth rates," America has led, he says, "in developing and disseminating the most widely used contraceptive methods, in providing contraceptives . . . and increasing motivation for family planning among individuals, communities, and national leaders."
The program also appropriates millions to increase food production in the developing nations, and the US is one among many nations trying to meet the combined hunger-population problem in the have-not nations.
Nobody at the Senate hearing raised the sensitive issue that birth control is a matter of theological dispute, that Pope John Paul II, speaking for a church of 750 million adherents, has reiterated opposition to the practice.
"We must continue to assert our leadership," Mr. McPherson testified. "Today , demand for population programs far exceeds available resources. Our funding request of $254.4 million for population programs is essential to keep up the momentum in the highest priority program areas."
The Reagan administration is cutting back proposed foreign aid by $500 million from the $2.4 billion asked by President Carter. The US is the world's largest contributor to foreign aid, but its proportion to gross national product has declined. In 1978, the US was 13th among 16 leading contributors in proportion to GNP; 15th in 1979; and with the proposed new cut the US would be 16th of the 16.
On the Senate floor, Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts clashed with Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina over cuts in foreign aid. Mr. Helms proposed to restore money by taking $200 million rom domestic school lunches and $100 million from the food-for-peace program. Mr. Kennedy, in effect, contended Helms was proposing to feed crusts to starving children overseas by taking them from poor children in the US.
The League of Women Voters urged Congress to restore administration budget cuts in foreign aid that "undermine US relations with the developing world" and undermine "vital social and economic programs."
Recent international studies warn of gathering population problems -- the comprehensive "Global 2000 Report" under international auspices, the Brandt Report, and the 1979 Presidential Commission on World Hunger commissioned by Mr. Carter.
"Yet there is hope," concluded the Global 2000 Report. It said, in effect, that the a larm had sounded; now, would the world respond?