Washington — A rise in food production in developing countries in the past two decades has ''confounded'' famine forecasts, the World Bank's fifth annual ''World Development Report'' declares.
Millions of the world's estimated 4.5 billion inhabitants remain hungry, and it is still touch-and-go between the increase in the number of people and in food supply and distribution. But the staff of the World Bank in a 172-page report expresses surprise at good production.
''The character of world agriculture has changed dramatically during the past 30 years,'' it says. It calls this increase a ''revolution.'' However, it warns that ''in most poor countries population growth sharply reduced the benefits'' and that ''the poor of the low-income countries still face a severe food problem.''
Latest figures from the World Bank seem to support the view that the problem of global hunger is as much a matter of distribution as of production. It says that ''the mass of the population spends 60 to 70 percent of its income on food'' in third-world countries.
The problem is getting food to the masses. Several generations of experiment, the bank now states, show farmers will rapidly expand production if given adequate facilities.
''Far from being 'tradition-bound peasants,' farmers have shown that they share a rationality that far outweighs differences in their social and ecological conditions,'' says the report.
The latest findings by the World Bank support the argument of demographers that malnutrition accompanies inequality and poverty, and that relief programs and population control by themselves won't solve problems until stubborn social and economic issues are met.
The two-part report from the World Bank deals primarily with international development and agriculture. Officials are still rubbing their eyes over the latter.
''The rise in agricultural output over the past two decades has confounded the predictions of widespread famine which were common in the 1950s and 1960s,'' it says. ''It has also disproved the Malthusian notion that agricultural growth is subject to iron laws beyond the control of people.''
Such gloom just isn't justified:
''If agricultural technologies can be improved, additional resources mobilized, and appropriate policies adopted in industrial and developed countries, then faster agricultural growth will be achieved. Economic development, particularly of the poorer countries, will speed up. And poverty will be reduced.''
Welcome as the expansion of agriculture is in third-world countries, it is not too soon, figures indicate. ''Driven by population and income growth, the demand for food in the developing countries is likely to increase at least a third over the next decade,'' the report points out. In fact, statisticians say, the increase ''could be much sharper.''
Farm products account for 30 percent of the developing countries total merchandise export earnings, and it is a bigger fraction in many lands. Can they keep up the increase? It is of global importance:
''Whether they can meet this challenge is a critical question for the future of hundreds of millions of people. There is no ready answer to it, but if the past is any guide, policy improvements could achieve dramatic results.''
Soil erosion and declining fertility are the main threats to rain-fed agriculture in humid and subhumid tropics, the report says. The soil needs ''continuous crop coverage.'' Nigeria has found a model systematic approach to the problem.
Livestock is of relatively small economic importance today in many low-income countries ''but could well expand rapidly in the future.'' Poor people get little meat, but the amount could rise spectacularly.
The report notes that the one thing needed most to meet world hunger is research. In the ''green revolution'' within little more than a decade ''over half the developing world's wheat acreage and one-third of its paddy fields were converted to new high-yielding, semidwarf varieties.''
There can't be enough research, the report says.