TODAY's observance of World Food Day is a good time to take stock of humanity's efforts to combat hunger. Still hungry are an estimated 500 million people, an increase of 40 million over the last 15 years. The threat of famine looms once again in rain-thirsty Ethiopia, where existing food supplies and promised relief are expected to run low by the end of the year.
The many who rallied with emergency aid in 1984-85 may well wonder whether anything has changed. Fortunately, the answer is yes. But much more remains to be done. In the area of immediate relief, for instance, feeding programs need to be refined and better aimed, directed more toward pregnant women and young children in areas where infant mortality rates are high and birth weights are low. Over the long term, more developing nations need to adopt economic and political policies that place a higher priority on agricultural production.
Only a decade ago the hunger problem was perceived as one of too little food for too many people. Now world food production is deemed more than adequate; the problem is one of distribution and access.
The major food shortage is in Africa, which now imports more food than it exports. Hunger is most acute in the sub-Saharan region, which has the highest population growth rate in the world and where per capita food production has declined steadily over the last decade or so.
An arid climate, poor soil conditions, and government policies favoring urban consumers over rural producers have all played a role. Agriculture researchers are trying to improve crop productivity with new strains, but the challenge in trying to launch a ``green revolution'' in Africa is considerably greater than it was in India.
Poor roads and lengthy civil wars in such nations as Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Sudan hamper production and distribution of both crops and food aid. This month 16 relief agencies were ordered to leave Sudan on charges that they ``cooperated'' with Sudanese rebel troops who control much of southern Sudan.
A new famine early-warning system, providing data on weather and crop conditions, can alert the developed world to emergency needs. Also, a number of developing nations are trying to increase food production by new financial incentives for farmers, wider distribution of improved seed and fertilizer, and removal of price controls on farm products. The failure to date of Ethiopia's Marxist government to adopt such economic reforms is considered a key reason that 2 to 5 million people in that nation are once again threatened by famine.
The West cannot afford to sit smugly by. Its farm subsidies encourage the production of more food than can be sold, and higher prices for consumers; they also limit the size of the market open to farm products from the third world. The West has rallied generously with immediate food relief during famines of years past. Developed nations should now redouble their efforts to eliminate the root causes of the problem by encouraging and undertaking policy changes that can improve the situation over the long term.
In his comments this week on World Food Day, President Reagan correctly focused on the most pressing need; he urged increased international coordination of agricultural and trade policies to stimulate economic growth and an end government interference in the marketplace.