Food for the world

TODAY'S sixth annual observance of World Food Day serves both as a reminder of the heartening progress already made in the fight against hunger -- and of the distance still to go. For a mix of reasons, from rains and better crops to generous increases in emergency assistance from around the world, the number of people now estimated by the United Nations to be ``seriously at risk'' from hunger -- some 10 million -- is a mere one-third of the estimated total two years ago. Some 7 million Ethiopians who experts say might have starved during the drought and famine of 1984 and '85 did not.

Yet for 700 million people around the world, the problem of hunger persists. For many, it is a matter of life and death. In Africa, the poorest continent, per capita food production has slipped 20 percent over the past 25 years. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says production could go down 30 percent more in the next 25 years if current trends hold. An African invasion of grasshoppers and locusts at the time of the fall rains is not helping. A key problem is that the continent's hefty 3 percent annual birthrate constantly threatens to outpace Africa's ability to produce its own food.

Still, there really is enough food produced globally to feed everyone. Getting it to the neediest remains difficult. In Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, and the Sudan, the nations now heading the world's hunger list, civil wars remain a major roadblock. Poor agricultural policies and a lack of strong political leadership -- encouraging production through more road building, farmer financial incentives, and wider use of improved seeds and fertilizer -- are also to blame.

Fortunately, there is a growing appreciation of this sophisticated web of causes. World Bank programs, for instance, no longer stress industrial development at the expense of the agricultural sector on the theory that competition demands it. At a July meeting of the Organization of African Unity, African governments pledged to put 20 to 25 percent of their public investment into agriculture. Many, too, are changing policies that have long favored cities. The success of India in quadrupling its agricultural production over the past two decades shows such concentration pays.

There are no reliable figures on the extent of hunger in the United States, but demands on food banks and soup kitchens have been steadily increasing. Close to 20 million Americans are on food stamps. A report last spring by the Physicians' Task Force on Hunger in America estimated that government red tape keeps an additional 10 to 15 million who are eligible for the program from taking advantage of it. Washington should launch a more energetic outreach effort to help those in need, keeping the necessary paper work to a minimum. Washington should also adopt a more efficient mode of getting surplus US commodities to states and cities, now often put off by federal red tape.

Americans are often accused of being fickle in their interest in issues, and no more dramatic Hands Across America rallies or Live Aid concerts are scheduled. But there are many signs that citizen interest in solving global hunger problems is growing rather than waning. A strong network of institutions offering emergency food help has gradually evolved in the 1980s. And new groups, such as the National Student Campaign Against Hunger organized in April 1985, keep surfacing. Tonight on 400 college and high school campuses that group will be dramatizing food disparities by sponsoring global dinners at which 16 percent of the students, representing first-world nations, will eat well and 60 percent, representing third-world nations, will eat rice and water. In the spring these same students will raise funds for food charities by neighborhood cleanup efforts. That kind of caring deserves recognition and encouragement. The ``we are the world'' concept must keep growing.

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