Africa, South Asia at risk, study says


January 30, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- A disastrous food shortage threatens many of the world's poorer nations, especially in Africa and South Asia, by the end of the decade, a panel of agriculture experts warned yesterday.

Population growth, environmental degradation and slowing food production make other countries besides Somalia ripe for famine, the panel said. And foreign aid for Third World farmers is dwindling at a time when more help is needed.

"Without more action now, we will, 20 years from now, look back on current food problems as insignificant," said Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, which organized the symposium.

Although ample food is being grown to feed the world, it is not evenly distributed, and more than 700 million people cannot get enough. The number of malnourished children in developing countries has increased by 22 million since 1975, according to the institute, and the ranks of underfed will continue growing in places such as Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique and Sudan.

Unless trends change, the food shortage in needy countries will increase from about 12 million tons to about 50 million tons by the end of the decade, Mr. Pinstrup-Andersen predicted.

In the next two decades, another 2 billion people will be added to the planet -- the equivalent of two more Chinas. But crop and livestock production has not kept pace in most of Africa and Latin America and in nearly half of Asia. Developing countries are growing about 3 percent a year, but food production is only rising 2 percent a year.

Even in Asia, where the "Green Revolution" of modern farming practices helped boost food production dramatically in the 1970s and early 1980s, there are signs of trouble. Rice crop yields in China and Southeast Asia are leveling off.

Food production is falling in some countries because of lower prices, but environmental degradation also has crippled crops. Some rice- and wheat-growing areas have been ruined by poor irrigation practices.

Elsewhere, farmers have cleared close to 50 million acres of forest a year, and nearly 1 percent of the world's tropical forests, said Donald Winkelmann, head of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.

"For a farmer who is trying to survive, it makes perfect sense to cut down the trees and farm," Mr. Pinstrup-Andersen said. But forests, though rich in animal, insect and plant life, often have poor soils for cultivation or grazing. So after a few years, farmers exhaust the land and move on, either cutting down more forest or migrating to already overcrowded cities.

"We cannot fence the Amazon," said Gustavo Nores, chief of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia. The best hope for stemming hunger while saving the forests is to help farmers and ranchers produce more food with the land they already have cleared, he said.

Meanwhile, some of the wild and traditional varieties of crops grown in many poor countries are rapidly vanishing, undermining future food production, said Geoffrey Hawtin, chief of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources in Rome. Farmers have abandoned native seed stocks in favor of new high-yield varieties bred abroad, he said, weakening their crops' resistance to drought and disease.

In famine-stricken Somalia, two storehouses of sorghum and corn seed varieties were looted in the past few months, Mr. Hawtin said. Farmers there also have been consuming seed rather than save it for planting. While seed from neighboring countries is being imported, it may not be as productive, and rebuilding the country's native seed stocks may take two years or more.

All is not bleak, the panel said. Researchers have been able to breed new varieties of corn that can grow in drought-stricken lands, and a new strain of rice might help South American ranchers raise more cattle and crops on less land.

Using biotechnology, scientists also have developed rice that can resist disease outbreaks that frequently hit the vital food crops. These rice varieties could enable farmers to cut back on use of environmentally harmful pesticides, Mr. Nores said.

But more foreign aid for agriculture is needed, and it has declined by $2 billion in the past decade, according to the food institute. More and better maintained irrigation systems also are needed, along with improved road and rail transportation.

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