Food Self-Sufficiency and the Environment

THE European Community (EC) is blocking farm-trade reform to protect its ruinous farm subsidies. European agricultural policies have already produced widespread environmental ruin in 12 countries: polluted surface waters, destroyed ancient hedgerows, mountains of manure, and the world's heaviest chemical usage.

The Greens who oppose agricultural free trade needn't worry that extra food production will mean more crowding on Earth. The world is already producing almost enough grain per year to nourish the extra population that will be on Earth in 2050. Forty percent of our crops normally go to nourish cattle, hogs, poultry, and fish for protein. If it were a choice between protein and starvation, most of the feed would be shifted to food. Famine will not limit the Earth's population.

But bad policies could heavily overstress the environmental resources of Asia. We must think globally. Asia trying to achieve self-sufficiency in people's diets is a far greater danger to the environment than importing part of the required food from the flat, rich prairies of Illinois.

Environmentalists should demand that their governments liberalize farm trade, so that the world's best and safest farming resources can provide a good diet for Asia's billions. Nothing less is likely to provide the sense of well-being that, paradoxically, is necessary to bring down birth rates - and to stabilize the current population growth surge.

The environmental movement is worried that the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) will make it tougher to get Earth-friendly policies in place around the globe. They are wrong.

In fact, the Greens should be on their way to the GATT talks in Geneva right now to rescue one of the most important environmental initiatives of this century: opening up GATT's farm-trade rules.

WITHOUT farm-trade reform, densely-populated Asia will try to become self-sufficient in food - even as it gets rich and doubles its population in the next 30 years.

Arid India, mountainous China, waterlogged Bangladesh, and rain-forested Indonesia are already peopled much more heavily than such alternative food-producing regions as the United States and Argentina. Whereas Asia already has 2.8 people per acre of arable land, the US has only 0.5 person per acre, and Argentina has 3 acres per person. By the year 2050, Asia will have 5 people per acre, compared with 0.6 for the US and 2.3 acres per person in Argentina.

Nevertheless, as Asians get more affluent they will push hard for the high-protein diets that the OECD countries have already adopted. It takes twice the farm resources to produce a calorie of cooking oil as a calorie of cereals, and three to four times the resources for a calorie of egg or poultry meat.

It's all very well to say that humans should be content with bare food sufficiency. But only with high-protein diets do people have maximum energy. Only with protein do children reach their full genetic stature. Asia's protein shift has already begun:

* China has doubled its poultry consumption in the last five years, from 2 million tons per year to 4 million tons;

* India's milk consumption is rising by a million tons per year;

* Indonesia has just told a group of big companies to clear another 1.5 million acres of tropical forest for soybean production.

A high proportion of Asia's farm potential is already being used: China is using lots of fertilizer and cultivating virtually every acre that has water and a slope of less than 45 degrees. India has already developed its best irrigation sites, while Indonesia already gets some of the highest yields in the world.

IN contrast, the US is diverting at least 50 million acres of good farmland from crops under government set-aside programs. Argentina is pasturing cattle on 75 million acres of the world's best farmland and using virtually no fertilizer at all. Just the diverted cropland in the US and Argentina could produce a calorie-adequate diet for 1.5 billion people - with no clearing of forest, no draining of wetlands, and with far less dependence on chemicals than would be needed in Asia.

Zaire and Brazil have huge tracts of high-acid savannah now growing nothing but stunted brush and sawgrass. New acid-soil seeds, however, permit high, sustainable yields of corn, soybeans, and cattle forage.

Asian politicians will demand "food self-sufficiency for food security." But self-sufficiency provides little food security. High-yield seeds are just as susceptible to a monsoon failure as low-yield seeds. When war's devastation threatened threatened Japan and Germany with famine after World War II, they were saved as most crop-loss regions are saved - by imports from a dozen willing countries. When Jimmy Carter put an embargo on US wheat exports to the Soviet Union, there were plenty of other willing s ellers. Food self-sufficiency is a thin excuse for politicians to buy their farmers' votes.

Right now, buying the votes of farmers in the US and Europe through price-support programs costs the rich countries $250 billion per year, without even providing a very good living for the farmers. (Most of the money bids up farm land values and buys extra chemicals.) In the long run, food subsidies and import barriers in Asia will be as counterproductive as in the developed world.

And the cost of the extra home-grown food can be dreadfully high in environmental as well as economic terms. Nepal is stripping Himalayan mountain forests to plant corn - causing highland soil erosion and deadly downstream flooding in Bangladesh. Saudi Arabia is pumping fossil water from depths as low as 700 feet to irrigate gritty crops of desert wheat. Japan is keeping its scarce land in rice paddies despite a rice surplus and is unable to build the housing and parks its people really need.

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