Challenges of feeding the world

Farm output expands slowly even as population growth and changing diets

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Wanted: the next "green revolution."

World hunger persists, despite three years of bin-bursting harvests. Nearly 1 in 7 people still lacks enough to eat. And the challenge of feeding their children in the next 30 years looks as difficult as it did in the 1960s.

Then, new crops and practices multiplied Asian harvests, albeit with environmental side effects. Now experts are looking for another revolution that will keep pace with growing population and richer diets. "The future is insecure," says Raymond Hopkins, a food-policy expert at Swarthmore College. After solving easier challenges of the 1960s, "We've gotten down to a more intractable set of problems."

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To be sure, some global food experts see solutions on the horizon, using such means as biotechnology, freer trade in farm goods, topsoil-preserving "conservation tillage," and easing armed conflict in areas such as Africa. And population growth, they note, will eventually peak, perhaps as soon as 2030.

But the challenge remains stark:

Yield per acre is not improving at anywhere near the rate of the 1960s. Population continues growing, while changing diets will require more food per person. And mankind has struggled to alleviate man-made hunger caused by inefficient government and civil war.

"For the first time, human-induced disasters such as civil strife and economic crises have more effect on food shortages than nature-induced crises," Hartwig de Haen, assistant director general of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, said last year.

The FAO estimates that 790 million people in the developing world lack enough to eat. That actually represents a decline of 40 million people since the beginning of the 1990s. But the progress is incredibly slow.

At the World Food Summit four years ago, leaders pledged to lower the number of hungry people to around 400 million by 2015. But if current trends persist, the FAO says "there is no hope of meeting that goal."

Poor children face the same glacier-like improvement. By 2020, some 135 million children under age five will be malnourished, predicts the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. That would represent only a 15 percent drop from 1995.

The picture is sobering but not bleak. By any yardstick, the world enters 2000 with a population better fed and less hungry (in percentage terms) than in 1900.

Some countries, such as India, considered ripe for disaster because of food shortages in the 1960s, have made a dramatic turnaround.

"The places that are behind are discouraging," says Robert Herdt, vice president for program administration at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York. But "the right things can come together."

The success in Asia and elsewhere has made food more affordable while boosting farmer incomes.

In fact, the world produces enough to sustain itself. It just can't grow it or transport it to the right places.

"There's no shortage of food," says Terry Francl, senior economist of the American Farm Bureau Federation in Park Ridge, Ill. "It's more a reflection of the political and economic systems under which these people live."

Take North Korea. Floods and drought have increased an economic crisis brought on by the collapse of its communist trading partners. As a result, corn yields are down 56 percent, the FAO estimates, and the dietary energy supply has fallen 21 percent.

But Cambodia is on the upswing after decades of war. In 1996, its farmers cultivated 69 percent more land than in 1980. Their yields shot up 64 percent. And despite a rapidly growing population, the average dietary energy supply has shot up 21 percent.

Regions reflect similar uneven progress. Although Asia contains two-thirds of the world's hungry people, most countries on the continent are moving to reduce hunger. But in sub-Saharan Africa, most countries appear headed the other direction. The FAO says 22 of its 38 nations saw hunger rise between 1980 and 1996.

"In general, we just don't see the takeoff yet in sub-Saharan Africa," says Mark Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

There are several reasons. For one thing, the hybrid varieties that launched Asia's green revolution in the 1960s and '70s have not thrived generally in Africa. The continent's tougher soils and climate pose a big challenge to farmers. And markets haven't stabilized.

Civil conflict, in places such as the Congo, Angola, and Somalia, remains the biggest obstacle to alleviating hunger. In southern Sudan, withholding of food aid has been used as a weapon of war.

"We're going to have to more than double food output before we reach zero population growth," predicts Luther Tweeten, an agricultural economist at Ohio State University in Columbus. "That's a real challenge."

Long-term trends don't look good. Farmers eke out a little more yield from their crops every year (an average of 1.6 percent more in 1996, for example). That rate is roughly half the average yield increase in the 1960s.

That's why some researchers urge that the developing world move to genetically modified crops, which are increasingly controversial in the developed world. Without the promised production boost from biotechnology, Mr. Tweeten suspects, real food prices will rise.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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