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The Raspberry Compact

PERSPECTIVES

By RUSHWORTH M. KIDDER / August 21, 1989



LINCOLNVILLE, MAINE

I'VE made a deal with myself. I call it the Raspberry Compact. It began the other day, when, as we often do in August, we bought some home-grown raspberries from a family up near Petunia Pump. Good ones, too: Plump, rosy, juicy, and tender. You like to think such things can go on forever - that your grandchildren will eat as well as you do. Actually, the compact started a few days later, when the United States Department of Agriculture released its August crop report. It doesn't talk about raspberries or grandchildren. It looks at world grain harvests. It suggests that unlike last summer, with its droughts, this has been a pretty good season.

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Yet for a third year in a row, world grain production will fall below consumption. For a third year in a row, that is, we'll be drawing down world grain reserves, which are already at their lowest levels since World War II, to feed the world.

Couple that with some other facts:

According to Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, the world's farmers annually lose 24 billion tons of topsoil to erosion - an amount equal to Australia's entire wheatland - while trying to feed 86 million more people each year.

According to food specialist Graham Molitor, president of Public Policy Forecasting Inc., American consumption is 2,451 pounds of grain per capita - much of it beef, which takes between eight and 20 pounds of grain per pound to grow. By contrast, Africans survive on only 247 pounds of grain per capita.

Yet according to Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and a noted environmentalist, humans stubbornly cling to a relative handful of plants as foodstuffs. Three kinds of grain - corn, wheat, and rye - produce 65 percent of humanity's food. ``There are very few cultivated plants that have been in cultivation for less than 2,000 years,'' he notes.

All of which raises a serious question: Will the world's grandchildren eat as well as we do today?

The irony, of course, is that even today's children aren't eating very well. Malnutrition and starvation are still brutal realities, especially in Africa and Latin America, where per-capita food production continues to fall.

It's not as though there hasn't been progress. In an unprecedented surge, world food output nearly tripled between 1950 and 1984. Mr. Brown attributes the increase to ``the big four technologies'': irrigation expansion, increased fertilizer use, high-yielding dwarf wheats and rices, and hybrid corn.

Now, however, that momentum has slowed. Those technologies have little room to grow. It doesn't look as though much cropland can be added. Nor do any new technologies, genetic engineering included, hold great promise before the turn of the century.

Where's the answer? It must lie in changes of habits and attitudes - just as it did at the end of the last century. Then, as now, the popular faith in unlimited material progress was beginning to crumble, and thoughtful people began looking for answers.

And answers there are. We can change population growth patterns - as Brazil, to everyone's delight, seems to be doing. We can stem environmental degradation, replacing waste with sustainability. We can improve political stability, so that surplus food in one country can be shipped to starving populations elsewhere. We can even rethink what we plant - and what we eat.

Does that mean giving up raspberries? I suppose it might - though I can't quite see how that would help. In the meantime, however, I've made the Raspberry Compact. It simply states that with privileges come responsibilities. I have the privilege of eating raspberries.

So every time I do, I've promised to ask myself this question: What have you done recently - what habits have you changed or acquired, what have you learned or written or paid for or invented - that helps feed the world's grandchildren?

Not everyone lives in raspberry country. But everyone can at least ask the question.