The world's major distributor of food to famine victims is facing the largest demand for emergency food relief ever - and stockpiles are beginning to run low. ``We are starting to face really critical problems in supplying emergency food around the world,'' says Paul Mitchell of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in a telephone interview from Rome. He says the problem could grow to unprecedented proportions, if demand for emergency food continues to outstrip supply.
So far, the impact of the drought that has reduced United States grain production by 24 percent and grain reserves by 20 percent is an unknown quantity in the impending global shortages, says Mr. Mitchell.
The main cause of shrinking supplies is the escalating need for emergency food relief brought on by the devastation of war in a number of countries: Mozambique, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Sudan, and Ethiopia among others. These wars have produced millions of refugees, most of whom are destitute and dependent on food relief for survival.
``The problem now is that the demand for emergency food aid is far greater than the amount available from donors,'' says Mitchell. While donors - including the US - have fulfilled their pledges of food to WFP, the need has exceeded the level covered by the pledged amounts.
``It's not particularly the problem of North America,'' says Mitchell. ``It's a global problem.''
Yet, shipments of emergency food to famine victims reach only a small portion of the world's hungry people.
Most of the hunger in the world is chronic, born of poverty, and unrelated to crisis situations. UNICEF estimates that some 14.6 million people, most of them children, die each year from hunger and nutrition-related causes.
Over the last three years, WFP's global shipments of emergency food aid have increased from 520,000 metric tons in 1986 to 839,000 metric tons in 1987. Demand for aid this year is expected to reach 1.3 million metric tons. (1 metric ton equals 2,204 pounds; 1 US ton equals 2,000 pounds.)
Already, Mitchell says the total amount of international emergency food reserves pledged to WFP by governments - 500,000 tons - has been allocated, leaving a shortfall of some 530,000 tons.
Donor countries have indicated that they can cover much of this shortfall through bilateral food-relief programs. But WFP believes it will still be left with an unmet demand of about 160,000 metric tons for 1988 alone.
``We have not yet had to turn down an emergency request,'' says Mitchell. ``But we are reaching a point where we could start running out of food. It's in the donors' hands.''
The drought in the US farm belt has had no impact on US donations to emergency food relief operations, according to officials at the US Agency for International Development (AID).
By law, emergency programs have highest priority among the various types of US overseas food aid that this country gives. The US has contributed a total of 699,000 metric tons of emergency food this year.
However, Owen Cylke of the Food for Peace program at AID says that non-emergency food-aid programs will be affected by the rising prices caused by the drought.
Such ``development'' programs, which include the sale of surplus food at a discount to foreign governments, are based on a dollar allocation, rather than on tonnage, as is the emergency food program.
Current US supplies of grain total an estimated 388 million metric tons - 20 percent less than last year's reserves, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
USDA estimates indicate that, after calculating domestic consumption, trade, and food aid for 1988-89, the US stocks remaining - known as ``ending stocks'' - will be only 99.5 million metric tons - about four months' supply of grain.
Officials at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) who calculate overall global food reserves say the US drought could prove to be a factor in low worldwide food supplies.
According to FAO, the minimum level of global stocks needed for ``worldwide food security'' is about 310 million metric tons.
While estimates of global ending stocks for 1987-1988 stand at 385 million tons, projections for 1988-1989 fall to the critical level of 310 million tons. Moreover, taking into account the 24 percent decrease in US grain production resulting from this year's drought, FAO says that ending stocks could fall to 297 million tons in early 1989.
However, FAO officials point out that these figures are subject to frequent revision, and they see no cause to ``ring the alarm bells'' yet.
``This doesn't mean that the world is in trouble,'' cautioned one official, who asked not to be named. ``But it does mean that if you have another series of crop failures next year, we would have trouble. We're running down our [reserves] to the minimum level we can feel comfortable about.''
A spokesman from a private aid agency, Robert McClosky of Catholic Relief Services, sees little likelihood of immediate shortages in US food supplies for relief programs in other nations.
``Surely not in the short run. [Food relief] commodities are taken from surpluses and they're still considerable,'' he says.
``It would take an extraordinarily sustained drought to have any effect in an immediate frame on those commodities. Commitments have been made through this year and deliveries are going out. I don't think anyone wants to think beyond this year.''