2.6 billion surplus Earthlings

April 27, 1996|By HAL PIPER

AGAIN THIS year, there were Earth Day calls to shrink the world's population. It seems the poor old planet, now burdened with 5.6 billion souls, can't take good care of more than about 3 billion. How are we to jettison 2.6 billion people? Limit families to one child -- by coercion, if necessary? That hasn't worked well in China. Let's try to think of something more practical.

Nuclear war probably is too petty a scourge. It would have to kill every man, woman and child in each of the countries that admit to having nuclear weapons -- China, India, the United States, Russia, France, Britain. That would do it. Down to 3 billion Earthlings, give or take 100 million.

Or we could try famine. If starvation took every African, Latin American, former Soviet-area person and Chinese (thank heaven for those 1.2 billion expendable Chinese; without them, we'd never get the population under control), it would total almost 2.6 billion. But not quite. Oceania's 28 million will have to perish, as a makeweight.

My own preference is plague. It seems undemocratic that the effects of population reduction should be concentrated in just a few nuclear-armed countries, or just the world's underdeveloped areas. Perhaps, with luck, scientists can hold off on a cure for AIDS until sufficient numbers in every land have wasted away.

After all, as the population expostulators tell us, don't count on a technological quick-fix.

They have a point. Just because the world's farmers have increased food production up to now is no reason to assume they can continue to do it. Fact is, my wife's cousin David, who is a farmer, is worried. He can't keep raising his crop yield indefinitely, he says. He's concerned, too, about the decline in world fish catches.

But it turns out David is doing something about both problems. He's looking into biogenetics and fish farming -- not to feed the world, but to expand his business.

The ''green revolution'' of improved hybrids and fertilizers raised crop yields for a generation and made it possible for much of Asia to become self-sufficient in food production, even in a time of rising population. But that revolution seems to have run its course.

Inventing better crops

The step beyond breeding better crops is inventing better ones by genetic manipulation. Better because they are more disease-resistant, higher-yielding -- maybe even more nutritious. You've already seen headlines about ''bioengineered'' tomatoes and other such marvels.

As in every young industry, there is foolishness and failure. A gene for resistance to weed-killer was spliced into a grain crop, then seems to have passed into some genetically similar weeds growing nearby. Holy science -- weeds immune to weed-killer! Still, it would be silly to bet that biogenetics won't bring abundant benefits to farmers -- and eaters -- soon.

Fish farming on a massive scale is farther off. Cousin David has a pond of catfish destined for the seafood counters and restaurants of Arkansas. The seas themselves, where we are still hunter-gatherers, will be domesticated, as plants and land animals were, for rising yields. Chesapeake Bay oystermen, Louisiana shrimpers and Massachusetts codfishers are already engaged in developing new ways to harvest.

Rising food production is what allowed the world's population to grow in the first place. And in fact, most of today's 5.6 billion live better than the 3 billion who lived a generation ago -- better diets, longer lifespans, more education, less infant mortality.

A generation from now there will be 8 billion of us. Pollution, urbanization, maldistribution of resources may be associated with rising population, but famine is unlikely to be. Cousin David is working on it.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion Commentary page.

Pub Date: 4/27/96

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