World's 'No. 1 problem' is soil protection
American Farm Bureau leaders visited Japan earlier this year to demand better access to Japanese markets. They came home impressed by that nation's deep concern about soil conservation.Skip to next paragraph
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''The Japanese,'' says Carrol Chaloupka, president of the Texas Farm Bureau, ''told us they're worried about our farmers ruining land they rely on for their food.''
Since the United States supplies 60 percent of the world grain trade and 17 percent (by value) of all agricultural trade, the state of its farmlands is a global concern. But what is true for the US is true throughout the world - food-producing topsoils are being lost or ruined at an alarming rate.
The Carter administration's Global 2000 Report - one of the best-documented assessments of the world resource challenge - warned: ''While on a worldwide average there was about four-tenths of a hectare (one acre) of arable land per person in 1975, there will be only about one-quarter hectare (three-fifths of an acre) per person in 2000.''
Two years later, the report's principal author, Gerald Barney, says he sees little that would change that projection. ''The No. 1 problem facing the world is the problem of soil protection,'' he warns.
Many nations are awake to this problem. The Global 2000 Report now is a best seller in its German, Japanese, and Spanish editions, despite sluggish US sales.
In a sense, a global test of Reaganomics is taking place. Many other nations wonder whether or not the Reagan administration's commitment to less government intervention and reduced federal spending will improve American agricultural productivity.
If the US can find a cost-efficient soil-conserving way to increase farm output substantially, this will relieve global food supply pressures. It will give third world countries more time to learn how to feed their exploding populations. But if even wealthy America can't halt the damage being done to its soil, poorer nations will be in still deeper trouble.
Meanwhile, information about the world's farming potential remains incomplete and controversial.
''Land degradation, or desertification, threatens to blunt agricultural efforts to keep pace with the global population surge,'' warns Harold Dregne, a Texas Tech University professor, in a US Department of Agriculture report. Dr. Dregne, who is director of the International Center for Arid and Semiarid Land Studies, admits that ''worldwide rates of land desertification are impossible to determine with any degree of reliability because little field information is available.'' Yet he estimates that ''only 40 percent of the world's available land is being farmed,'' with perhaps only 3.5 billion acres out of a total of 6. 2 to 8.6 billion acres now producing crops.
Dregne forecasts that ''per capita food production will likely increase in developed countries, primarily on the continents of Australia, Europe, and North America, spurred by improved land management techniques and, in some cases, the reversal of moderate desertification.'' But he concludes that ''the large majority of the developing countries (primarily in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America) will have difficulty increasing food production.''
''Although desertification could be halted, and even reversed, in these developing nations, the deceptively slow degradation process is frequently overlooked, and the cost of reversing current desertification is steep,'' he says. ''This, combined with the additional expense of expanding cultivation to new lands, will make it difficult for these developing nations to increase food production to meet rising populations.''
The Global 2000 Report draws similar conclusions. It states: