AMES, IOWA — CORNFIELDS blanket Iowa like a green ocean, making thoughts of famine seem as out of place as fleas on a goldfish. Yet John Ruan does worry about famine - so much so that he awards $200,000 each year to whoever contributes most to improving world food output.
"We can produce more population," the Des Moines businessman muses, "but not more land."
Our planet and its resources continue to shrink in relation to the burgeoning human population. Farmers must feed 5.3 billion mouths, and 90 million new ones each year - as much as another Mexico.
"The question is, can we do it?" asks Richard Harwood, a sustainable-agriculture expert at Michigan State University (MSU).
World food production must triple within 50 years to feed a peak population of 9 billion to 12 billion, says Dennis Avery, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. "I see it as a challenge," says Mr. Avery, who is considered the most optimistic forecaster of food production trends.
Less than a billion people inhabited earth 200 years ago, when English economist Thomas Malthus theorized that populations naturally grow at a faster rate than food supply, making misery and starvation inevitable. That scenario has unfolded in some poor countries. But Malthus did not foresee that economic development and modern birth-control techniques would curb population growth, nor that new agricultural technologies would boost food output, as has happened in much of the world.
Consider last year's "International Human Suffering Index," compiled by the Population Crisis Committee in Washington, D.C. In Denmark, the nation with the least suffering as measured by daily calorie supply, per capita gross national product, and other measures, population growth has slowed to zero. In Mozambique, where suffering is the greatest, annual population growth is a substantial 2.7 percent.
Thus, despite the currency of phrases like "world hunger" and "global famine," those conditions don't exist and probably never will, food resource experts agree. Starvation is local.
Today, the world's people on average are better-fed than ever before, but vast numbers still go hungry - 786 million in the developing world, down from 941 million two decades ago, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Several tasks lie ahead, agronomists agree. Political conditions that give rise to conflicts must abate. Agriculture must be put on a sustainable basis. Farm productivity must be enhanced and modern techniques disseminated. Economic development is essential to help the poor reduce their birth rates and afford a better diet. The political challenge
In 1979 Tenneco West, then the agribusiness subsidiary of the Houston-based natural gas transmission company, set up a 3,000-acre mechanized farm in northern Sudan.
The country was being hailed as a potential breadbasket of the region because of its untapped land and water resources. Yields rose from half a ton of wheat per acre to two tons as the soil progressively improved. Tracy Park, the corporate vice president responsible for the farm, says it was able to feed 50,000 people in the region.
However, "you can't run a rational agriculture program in a country that's undergoing a civil war, not even if you're out of the immediate area where they're fighting," Mr. Park says. "You either can't get fuel, or supplies, or whatever it is you need." The company sold the farm to its employees in 1986.
And that is the story of starvation in Africa, says Avery.
Except for the 1973 and 1983 droughts in Ethiopia, famine in Africa has been caused by shooting wars.
Somalia is the latest example: Over the last two months alone, 2,000 people a day have perished in the ongoing crisis, according to CARE. "This year we've got famine in Somalia with no drought, and drought in southern Africa with no famine. And the difference is guns," Avery says. The sustainability challenge
Farmers cultivate 3.7 billion acres - 11 percent of the earth's land surface, according to the FAO. Is more available?
Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the most pessimistic forecaster of food production trends, says the world farmland base stopped growing in 1980 and that "there's not much good crop land left to bring under the plow."
Avery says a billion acres of African wetlands and another billion of savanna with acidic soil could be pressed into service.
The FAO says that "with sufficient investment in drainage and irrigation," farmland could double worldwide. However, the FAO does not expect that. Rather, it forecasts a decline of up to 10 percent due to land degradation. Dr. Brown and Avery concur that erosion, salination, water-logging, and water table depletion will remove some farmland from cultivation (see box, Page 12).
In addition, Brown notes, a United States government study found that air pollution can reduce crop yields by 10 percent. Elsewhere, studies have found that increased ultraviolet radiation, an effect of ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere, impairs important functions in rice and wheat. Research is continuing on the impact on yields.
Global warming, caused by the accumulation of "greenhouse" gases like carbon dioxide, would have an uncertain impact on total farm output. Weather patterns would shift. High-value coastal farmland would be flooded. But carbon dioxide enhances photosynthesis and therefore crop production, says MSU's Dr. Harwood.
Though Brown argues that "part of the world's food output today is not sustainable," Harwood says the technological answers to many sustainability challenges are on the horizon.
Dennis Keeney, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, points out that the well-being of the farmer and his community are also part of the sustainability equation. And the trends toward large farms and mass-production of poultry, he notes, may not be for the best.
The Leopold Center found that a farmer could earn $29,600 from 1,000 acres of corn, but $47,300 from 400 acres of mixed corn and soybeans plus 120 pigs. If, like chickens, pigs are ever mass-produced, individual farmers might find it impossible to compete and, complains Dr. Keeney, "we lose the opportunity to be sustainable" as a business. The biological challenge
Avery says that thanks to the "green revolution," which introduced fertilizer and high-yield crop hybrids to many developing nations, "we have effectively tripled the world's crop yields since 1960. We're farming almost exactly the same amount of land that we did then, in spite of the fact that we have twice as many people, and we're feeding them better."
Brown believes the revolution is over.
"The nice thing about the period from 1950-84 was, you just poured on more fertilizer," he says. But fertilizer use, which he argues has made its full impact, has actually declined in the last two years. Part of the reason for the drop is that farmers are learning to apply smaller quantities of fertilizer directly where needed. Growth in per capita grain production has declined from 3 percent during 1950-84 to 1 percent since then.
"There are still a lot of opportunities for expanding food production, but they tend to be a little bit here, a little bit there - sort of more nickel-and-diming rather than the quantum jumps that we were getting from the enormous growth in irrigation from 1950-78 or fertilizer from 1950-84," Brown says.
James Hill, a senior FAO economist, says Brown has been making that prediction for years and has been proven wrong - so far. "However, the actual equation is correct. In sheer rational terms, there will be a limit to production," Dr. Hill says. "The question is, when is it going to occur?"
David Mengel, a soil and crop scientist at Purdue University, agrees that some technologies have given their full benefit. But he's counting on biotechnology to keep crop yields rising.
"I'm not the pessimist that some other people might be," Dr. Mengel says. The economic challenge
On the likelihood of raising output, Avery is as pessimistic as his counterpart at the Worldwatch Institute, though for a different reason. "Brown is saying that we can't produce more. I'm saying that there is no economic incentive to produce more," Avery explains. Countries with farm surpluses for export "are being shut out of virtually all of the growth in food demand" because countries desiring self-sufficiency put up tariffs.
In the last decade, world consumption of grain and oilseeds has risen 400 million tons, but trade is up just 29 million. Trade is supplying about 6 percent of the growth in demand for meat, he adds.
In the Western Hemisphere, Avery says, 50 million prime soybean acres go unused. Yet Indonesia just announced plans to clear 1.5 million acres of jungle to raise that crop - the very kind of hunger-related environmental depredation that Worldwatch has predicted.
With export markets uncertain, US farmers are seeking industrial customers for their food crops - turning corn into sweeteners and ethanol, for example. "This will drive the price of food up, which it is meant to do," Harwood says.
But what of the poor? In the US, Harwood says, rising food prices could mean more food stamps. A widening gap between the haves and have-nots could bring more Los Angeles-style social anarchy, he adds.
Avery says farmers in some parts of Africa could triple their corn production using high-yield varieties already in their possession. But they don't because their countrymen don't have the money to buy the output.
"You can see the problem [of malnutrition] is not primarily an agricultural one," Harwood says. Rather, it's one of wealth and income.
A recent World Bank report showed that 840 million people lived in 50 countries that experienced falling incomes during the 1980s. "The economic progress that should have been driving the demographic transition, the shift to small families, is just not occurring in a lot of these countries," Brown says. "Food output is slowing and population growth is not slowing. At least, not very much. That, I think, is going to get us in a jam before the end of this decade."
Avery, however, argues that the third world has gone 65 percent of the way to population stability in one generation. "We are set for more economic growth in poor countries than we have ever seen," he says, but he admits that Africa will have "a long, slow, desperately difficult struggle."
"I'm not predicting the end of hunger. I'm not predicting that governments will get perfect," Avery says. "I'm saying that there is no reason to have famine for lack of food production potential."
* Next: How far can technology boost output?