Hunger Ahead

August 14, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Bearing bad news is a thankless profession. Lester R. Brown should know. Founder and president of the Worldwatch Institute, Mr. Brown is now warning the world that its population growth is outrunning the world's capacity to produce food.

If enough people listen, they may take measures that will significantly ease or even avert the crunch. And what thanks will Mr. Brown get? If the future arrives without a dire mismatch between population and food, commentators adept at hindsight could well hold his prophecies up to ridicule, exposing him as yet another alarmist who underestimated the resourcefulness of the human race.

That's the way it goes, but we should be glad that, for some prophets at least, the risk of ridicule is no deterrent to sounding the alarm. That way, we can make adjustments in time to prove them wrong.

This week, the Worldwatch Institute released ''Full House: Reassessing the Earth's Population Carrying Capacity,'' an overview by Mr. Brown and Hal Kane of trends that suggest there really is a limit to the number of people the earth's resources can sustain. Their evidence includes some troubling signs:

* Since 1984, grain output per person has fallen roughly 1 percent per year.

* Since 1989, the seafood catch per person has fallen by 2 percent each year.

* Major food-producing regions are facing limits on the amount of water available for crops. Competition from industrial and residential users is increasing the pressure on water supplies.

* Grain crops are showing a limited capacity to respond to fertilizer to increase the harvests.

* Population, meanwhile, is growing rapidly, at an increase of about 90 million people per year.

Scientists project that in the year 2030, the world will harvest 2.1 billion tons of grain. That would feed 2.5 billion people, U.S. style -- 800 kilograms per person. Of course, it's possible to eat well at much lower levels of consumptions -- the Italians prove that at an average of 400 kilograms per person. At that level, the world could feed 5 billion people.

Trouble is, by 2030, the world population could easily reach 8.9 billion people, with most of the increase coming in countries that are already hard-pressed to feed their citizens. Under current scenarios, the grain supply per person for the world as a whole would drop to 240 kilograms, just 20 percent above the current consumption level in India, where hunger is no stranger.

All of this leads Mr. Brown and Mr. Kane to conclude that the world's first real taste of limits will come when the population seriously outpaces the food supply.

In ''Full House,'' Mr. Brown recalls his experience 30 years ago as a young analyst in the Department of Agriculture. The Agency for International Development had asked for help in evaluating an early draft of India's next Five-Year Plan. He traveled to the country and immediately noticed numerous signs that the goal for the 1965 grain harvest was already in jeopardy.

Droughts were reported throughout the country. Anecdotes from businessmen and scientists added to his concern, and he became alarmed enough to alert the secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman, so that emergency relief efforts could be ready, if necessary. The resulting operation averted a massive famine.

Meanwhile, India's own policy makers began focusing on long-term efforts to prevent future crises. They revamped food-pricing policies that favored urban dwellers but deprived farmers of the means to invest in irrigation, fertilizer and other improvements that could boost their harvests. They privatized the production of fertilizer and accelerated the distribution of seeds of high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat.

The country's wheat harvest has now nearly doubled, but so has its population. In 1994, the future is not as rosy as in 1965.

As Mr. Brown says: ''The difference between then and now is that the nation is already using most of the technologies available to raise food production. If I were asked by the Indian government today to draft an agricultural strategy that would dramatically boost its food output in order to eliminate hunger, diversify diets and provide for 590 million additional people over the next four decades, I could not do so. Nor do I know anyone who could.''

In Cairo next month, the United Nations convenes its conference on population and development, where it hopes to garner support for programs aimed at stabilizing the world's population at only 7.8 billion by 2050.

It will take enormous political will to initiate and sustain the efforts necessary to reach that goal. Maybe the prospect of the hunger ahead will stiffen enough spines to get the job done.

Nothing would please Mr. Brown more than to see the world prove him wrong.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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