Despite bumper harvest, world's cupboard grows bare

Grain reserves worldwide have fallen to their lowest level in 30 years. Population continues to mushroom. Bumper harvests this year probably will meet demand, but only barely.

This week the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is meeting in Rome with officials of some 120 nations. The top item on their agenda: food security. The world, some experts suggest, is teetering on the brink of a global food crisis.

But don't be surprised if their warnings go unheeded. Leaders heard similar forecasts three decades ago and dodged the danger. Can they do so again?

The numbers are not encouraging.

On the demand side, the FAO estimates that some 842 million people worldwide were undernourished in 1999-2001. Although that number was falling in the first half of the 1990s, it has grown since then by 18 million in poor countries and by 9 million in those nations moving from communism to market systems.

While the FAO's goal is to halve the number of hungry people in the world by 2015, more than three-fourths of 122 developing and in-transition countries "are either lagging behind or not on course to attain the goal," according to an assessment of world food-security for the Rome gathering.

"We are worried," says Margarita Flores, secretary of the FAO's Committee on World Food Security.

Meanwhile, 76 million people a year are added to today's population of 6.2 billion. By midcentury, there could be 9 billion mouths to feed.

The supply side is, if anything, more dismal. The world's grain harvests have for four years fallen short of consumption, says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. These shortfalls have pulled down the world's grain reserves to only 59 days of consumption, the lowest level in 30 years. The FAO figures the world should have 70 days of grain supply left after each harvest, or supply becomes shaky.

Fortunately, this year's grain harvest is shaping up to be superb, thanks to excellent weather in most of the grain-producing regions. The crops of wheat, corn, and rice are up 20 to 30 percent; the soybean crop has doubled. "Yet even with this exceptional crop, we were not able to boost stocks," says Mr. Brown. This bumper crop was "just about enough to satisfy world consumption."

So if excellent harvests give way to normal ones, world food reserves could become dangerously slim.

Thirty years ago, the picture looked much the same. The Club of Rome published "Limits to Growth," a book that, among other things, saw a combination of population growth and limited farmland leading to widespread hunger. The book didn't specify when that would happen, but it was widely interpreted as a warning of imminent danger.

Then, widespread famine was averted, partly because of big boosts in production in key areas, such as the United States, where farmers were urged to plant "fence-row to fence-row," and Asia, where the "Green Revolution" introduced new, far more productive varieties of grain. Within 10 years, the world was drowning in farm surpluses instead of facing shortages. The Club of Rome report was consigned to the dustbin of Malthusian miscalculations.

Will similar forces save the world from hunger a second time?

Unfortunately, no new higher-yield grains are in the offing, Brown points out. And arable land in many nations is shrinking, not growing.

To boost food output, the FAO's Mrs. Flores wants more spending to bring the latest farming technologies to small farmers, the people most in danger of hunger.

Brown would like to see greater efforts to encourage birth control in developing nations, where almost all population growth will be occurring. He would also like to see a "global full-court press" to have farmers raise their productivity in the use of water. And he wants the world to tackle global warming more seriously, since a 1 degree C rise in the average temperature cuts grain yields 10 percent.

Brown has long been accused of being an alarmist, the boy crying "Wolf!" when there was no wolf. "I hope they [the accusers] are right," he says.

But even that folk tale suggests it's dangerous to get too complacent. Eventually, the wolf came and ate the boy.

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