First small steps toward feeding a burgeoning world

The statistics are sobering, to say the least: A world, overflowing with people, is running out of food-producing croplands at a rapid clip. From now on we can expect to see a steady increase in prices that will double the cost of the family food basket in real terms by the year 2, 000 in the industrialized world.

In many areas food in sufficient quantities might not be available whatever the price.

The following figures, facts, and forecasts are not meant to be alarming. They are meant to underscore a need for everyone to contribute in some measure toward the food supply of this world.

Fortunately, the individual need not stand helplessly by. There is much that he can do.

In all the world there are only six countries which export more food than they consume. Of the others, a majority must import a major portion of their food to survive.

World population figures continue to climb, particularly in the third world where 75 percent of the earth's people reside -- 80 percent by the year 2,000. In that year, too, there will be four mouths to feed for every three today. Where will be needed food be produced?Certainly not in the third world, where the worst scenarios have more than 80 percent of farmlands there lost to desertification, erosion, and other pressures.

The US, this planet's major food producer, had 12 percent of its cropland idle in the early 1970s. now that reserve has been taken up to help meet world food needs. The cushion has gone.

Meanwhile, depending on whose estimates you look at, between 2 million and 3 million acres of prime US farmland are being consumed each year by urban sprawl -- disappearing under factories, office buildings, homes, new roads, and shopping malls.And that's not all. Erosion on a quite unacceptable scale is continuing. For every bushel of corn produced in the Midwest, two bushels of farm soil is lost to erosion. This sort of exploitation cannot continue for much longer without a marked effect on food production and prices.

In the Northeast, the meat, potatoes, and vegetables on last night's dinner plate traveled an average of 1,300 miles. In fact, more than 80 percent of all Northeast food is imported, much of it from California's San Joaquin Valley, which produces 25 percent of all table food and 40 percent of all vegetables consumed in the US.

All that production will be needed to feed California alone by the year 2,000 , according to some projections.

In short, consumer complacency brought about by decades of well-stocked supermarkets and cheap (relative to earnings) food will be shattered in the years ahead.

What can we do to change the picture? We can become producers as well as consumers. We can grow some of our own food and so free up supplies for those who cannot do so. Every little bit will help -- even the lone tomato plant and the occasional cabbage in a balcony pot.

It will become economically rewarding, too. For instance, I grew several cabbages last year at a cost of a couple of cents each, excluding my own labor.each plant, including the second heads that were allowed to grow, returned more than a dollar's worth of food. That handy savings in food dollars will become even more impressive as food costs rise is real terms. the same can be said for every product of the garden.

Encouraging news comes from Ecology Action of the Midpeninsula in Palo Alto, Calif.Its decade of experiments in low-energy backyard farming, using resource-conserving, soil-building methods, indicate that home production can reach impressive proportions.

Using wide-bed intensive methods in organically enriched soils, the organization gets four times the average US farm production rates per square foot, uses a quarter of the water, and a half the purchased nitrogen per pound of food. One 5X20-foot (100 square feet) bed will produce 50 pounds of corn or 550 pounds of summer squash. The average production is in the region of 300 pounds a year for a six-month growing season.

Compare this with the 322 pounds a year of soft vegetables and fruits which the average adult consumes and the significance of that 100 square feet becomes obvious.

Not everyone has the space for one or more vegetable beds in the backyard.Many have no yards at all. But container-grown food and container-growing know-how is on the increase.

Containers, or what are known as grow bags, have turned many a nook and cranny into useful food-producing space, given adequate sun.And this trend will widen as nutritional and economic pressures dictate.

While cities often have little food-growing space at ground level, hundreds of unused acres are available up top. Cultivating the rooftops is a trend of the future.

This column will feature examples of intensive home food production in the coming months. Readers might be interested in two pamphlets addressing this subject: Organic Gardening magazine's "Cornucopia Project" (25 cents from 33 East Minor Street, Emmaus, Pa. 18049) and Ecology Action's "Bio-Intensive Mini-Farming" (50 cents from 2225 El Camino Real , Palo Alto, Calif. 94306).

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