Food for the world

Amid the abundance of food stocks found in the developed nations, there is the urgent need for wisdom and compassion equal to that bounty to fashion practical solutions for the world's hungry.

The continuing reports of severe drought and widespread famine in the Sahel region of Africa and in parts of Asia challenge the international political community to rethink world food production in general. What is increasingly evident: Developed nations - especially those of Western Europe and North America - need to reduce the cost of government farm programs to help bring down the world price of food products. At the same time poorer, less-developed nations need to increase the amount of national resources going into the farming sector to encourage stepped-up food production.

The drought in Africa continues to take a tragic toll. What needs to be kept in perspective is that African food production (as now constituted) will not meet that continent's food needs. Further, according to an analysis by Worldwatch Institute, since 1973 overall world grain production has been growing at a rate that is barely staying even with world population growth.

Population expands at 3 percent a year in Africa. Food production grows at 1. 3 percent annually. The food deficit this year (3 million tons) is not being met through international relief channels. The overall United Nations relief program is still short l million tons of food stocks. And less than half of the 2 million tons pledged to Africa has yet to arrive.

Meantime, the Western industrial nations continue to turn out large food surpluses. One would be hard pressed to begrudge the farm bounty of the developed nations. Still, expensive farm subsidies threaten to break up if not bankrupt the European Economic Community. Its member nations have begun steps to reduce farm costs. The EEC, for example, has reduced spending on milk. In the United States many taxpayers question government farm programs that cost at least $30 billion annually.

One would be remiss in overly simplifying solutions about the global food challenge. But at the least, solutions should be seen as comprising three objectives.

For the developed world:

Reduce the cost of government food programs to help lower the world price of food. Some thinking along that line is now evident. In the US, reducing farm costs would mean crafting a federal food program better linked to actual costs of production. One goal might be to coordinate farm-support programs with land-use policies - in other words, tie support programs to land set-aside policies so that marginal acreage can be taken out of production and restored. Soil enrichment, checking erosion, and better water-use policies are also needed. By law, Congress will have to put together a comprehensive new farm bill in 1985. Bold rethinking is needed from Washington.

For the developing nations:

Farm policies are geared toward keeping food prices low for city consumers. Policies need to be recrafted so farmers receive more income as an incentive to boosting production. And developing nations need to inculcate better farming techniques, including stepped-up use of fertilizers and crop-rotation methods - while checking the diversion of vital croplands to less productive uses.

For the world community:

Current food-relief programs are designed to be anticipatory; that is, they provide assistance before a food crisis occurs. They need to be turned into what one analyst calls ''rapid deployment programs'' that can quickly get supplies to areas of need.

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