Food and Fairness

September 30, 1994

Ponder this: In 1990, China produced 329 million tons of grain and consumed 335 million tons, importing the 6-million-ton difference. Assuming no rise in average consumption among its people, China will still need 479 million tons of grain by 2030 to feed the 490 million additional people the country is projected to add in the next several decades. That's a shortfall of 150 million tons.

If rising affluence allows Chinese to increase their consumption of grain from the present level of just under 300 kilograms per person to 400 kilograms per person (one-half the U.S. level), the country's grain deficit would reach 378 million tons. Yet for the past decade and a half, its grain imports have averaged only about 200 million tons a year. Half of that comes from the United States, which will have 95 million additional people of its own to feed by 2030.

Is this scenario, sketched by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., overly pessimistic? Prophets of doom have often been proven wrong. But never have as many trends pointed in the wrong direction. Water shortages are cropping up in many parts of the world, and urbanization and development are removing more farmland from food production. Even the oceans offer bad news; overfishing has pushed several of the HTC world's main fisheries into serious decline.

The world doesn't necessarily face sudden famine. Rather, the problem lies in the failure of supplies to keep pace with the world's population, which is growing by about 90 million people a year. When the availability of food grows less rapidly, the net effect is more hunger -- a burden that falls hardest on those who are already impoverished.

At this point, the impact of these trends on Americans is relatively benign. Stories about grain projections, shrinking areas cropland, depleted oceans or the growing competition for water supplies could mean higher food prices here. But for a family in Bangladesh or Ethiopia or Ghana, those same stories are harbingers of misery and death. A world with that kind of imbalance is a world with political crises waiting to explode.

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