A crowded and hungry world

August 16, 1994

When delegates gather next month in Cairo for a United Nations conference on population and development, they will confront some stark predictions. One of them, from the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute, reviews trends on population growth and food production and concludes that the world is likely to face severe shortages of food within the next four decades.

Future headlines are likely to feature huge shortages of grain in Africa, India and China. Those shortages will not necessarily signal crop failures, but simply a failure to keep up with population growth. Yet, looking at the projected growth figures, it will be a miracle if these areas of the world can keep up.

Nigeria, which grew by 55 million people between 1950 and 1990, is a good example. In the next 40 years, it is projected to add another 191 million people. Meanwhile, the amount of land per person available for harvesting grain is shrinking, from 0.23 hectare per person in 1950, to 0.09 hectare in 1990. By 2030, assuming -- optimistically -- that the same amount of land will stay in production, population pressures will shrink Nigeria's grain cropland per person to a mere 0.03 hectare. Some countries are even worse off. Ethiopia, which can't feed its current population, is expected to add 106 million more people by 2030.

Population projections are out of kilter with food supply, even assuming reasonably steady increases in food productions. But the Worldwatch study shows that those business-as-usual assumptions are unrealistic; global food output may well have peaked.

Since 1984, the world's grain output per person has fallen by 1 percent per year. Even scarier, the oceans, which have been viewed as a boundless source of protein, have begun to show stress as a food-producer. Since 1989, the world's total seafood catch has dropped by 2 percent each year.

Three decades ago, the world had a wealth of technology in reserve to help boost food production. Today, there are no new weapons available to bring about similar miracles. The best hope is achieving a sustainable balance between the world's population and the resources available to feed them. Clearly, the delegates in Cairo have their work cut out for them.

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