The Food Crisis Won't Be Solved Without Stabilizing World Population

Focus of summit should go beyond simply producing more food

In our rapidly advancing technological world, it is often difficult to imagine that technology can't solve all our problems. And in America, where we take in on average one-third more calories than we need, it's difficult to think of the food crisis going on all around us.

Yet 800 million people worldwide are chronically undernourished, and 88 countries can't produce or import enough food to feed their populations. Is this simply a problem of uneven distribution? Is the solution fertilizers that increase wheat production and super plants whose harvests will be able to double yield per acre?

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has called the World Food Summit to address the current and future crisis of food security. This is the first time heads of government will meet to address the problem of hunger since the founding of the FAO.

The FAO says there is a need to "attack the root causes of persistent food insecurity, notably the inadequate overall development and, particularly, agricultural and rural development."

A plan of action

Heads of state and government from approximately 200 countries, rank-and-file citizens, and representatives of international organizations will meet in Rome, Nov. 13-17, to design a plan of action to eliminate hunger - one of human society's most fundamental rights.

The two sides of the debate on the causes of food insecurity are as follows: Scientists and agronomists feel the problem is primarily a matter of uneven distribution and say the advances in agricultural technology will solve the problem; while some social scientists and population activists think the "miracle cures," even another Green Revolution of the past, won't promote sustainable farming practices that can keep the land producing for years to come. The latter claim biotechnology does not take into consideration the harmful effects these super plants can have on surrounding life.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), chaired by Ismael Serageldin, World Bank vice president, released a report stating that there is no need for alarm. The report maintained that "despite some gloom and doom predictions, the world has the resources needed to feed the 8 billion people who will be on the Earth in 2025."

All we need to do, CGIAR says, is continue research on projects such as "super rice," wheat, and cassava strains that can "break through the yield ceiling."

Many environmentalists and population activists agree that science may be able to make up the difference and produce enough food to feed future populations, but they question the sustainability of these farming practices. By using the pesticides we have today, crops are resistant to current strains of pests. But researchers must keep ahead of the pests by creating pesticides that are increasingly more resistant, though potentially harmful, to both animals and humans.

Grain production peaked in 1984 at 346 kilograms, and since then the grain produced per person fell steadily. In 1995 it reached a low of 295 kilograms per person. As an additional 90 million people are added to the world's population this year, we are required to use carry-over stocks of grain. The world now has only 51 days of grain supply, the lowest level on record. Wheat prices increased to an all-time high of $7 per bushel in April 1996, and corn reached a record of $5 a bushel.

Not fast enough

Although the debate continues, the supply is getting lower. Even if science makes a new discovery that will "break through the yield ceiling" it is unlikely this will happen soon enough to help the hungry in Africa, where the population is predicted to double in fewer than 25 years and 33 percent of the population is already malnourished.

The plan of action proposed at a preparatory meeting for the World Food Summit did not include policies that would attack the demand side of the equation: rapidly growing population. The plan was geared solely toward solving the supply side: how to produce more food. Unless the World Food Summit recognizes and encourages the goal of stabilizing world population, it can't succeed in solving the critical problem of world food security.

*Werner Fornos, president of the Population Institute in Washington, will lead a delegation to the World Food Summit.

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