Steady progress in feeding the world

June 11, 1996|By Dennis T. Avery

CHURCHVILLE, Va. -- The United Nations has another extravaganza coming your way: a global food summit.

You may remember the United Nation's big Cairo Population Conference in 1994. It raised $17 billion in international pledges to ''manage'' world population growth -- without mentioning to anybody that Third World birth rates had already dropped three-fourths of the way to stability since 1965.

Now comes the sequel, the World Food Summit, which will take place in Rome this November. Preliminary ''hearings'' are already under way in Washington and other world capitals.

Actually, a global food summit is not a bad idea.

The world population will probably reach 9 billion before it stabilizes (up from the present 5.7 billion). Since the world is getting rapidly richer (even the Third World), most people will eat more resource-costly foods such as meat, milk, fruits and vegetables. The world may need to triple its food output over the next 50 years to satisfy the demand. That's worth a serious look forward.

A World Food Summit would be worthwhile, even if it just demanded a round of applause for the progress we've made in feeding the world.

Ending famine

The high-yielding seeds of the Green Revolution and the improved pesticides coming from chemists have helped raise the food calories per Third World resident by about one-third since 1960. That has put 90-plus percent of them into food sufficiency, if not affluence. The world hasn't had a major famine since Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, which starved about 30 million Chinese during the late 1950s.

Unfortunately, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization is probably not the right organization to look objectively at the long-term future of food.

During the 1970s, the FAO all but ignored the Green Revolution, which was doubling crop yields with high-yielding seeds and fertilizers. It tried instead to organize commodity cartels that would have raised food prices for the poor. Fortunately, the cartels failed. The Green Revolution brought food production costs down, and farmers and consumers were better off.

The real food problems are emerging in Africa, but the FAO probably fears that holding an African food summit would not raise much in donations. Africa's key problem is having the worst set of thuggish, thieving governments left on the world scene.

Because they are too poor, African farmers are not using fertilizer or high-yield seeds. Their own governments have robbed them with monopolies, taxes and tariffs. The recent African famines have all been side-effects of civil wars.

Wildlife habitat

One of the greatest benefits of the Green Revolution is that higher yields allowed us to produce more food without using more land. World food output has more than doubled since 1960, but the farmers are cultivating only the 6 million square miles of land they used in 1960. That has left an extra 10 million square miles of land for wildlife habitat.

This environmental triumph has not impressed the FAO. It is recommending low-yield ''sustainable farming'' that minimizes fertilizer and pesticide use. ''Sustainable farming'' has a nice ring to it, but the yields are only half as high. Millions of extra square miles of wildlife habitat would have to be plowed to get our food.

This ''sustainable'' farming is also less sustainable, because it suffers far more soil erosion. And with lower yields, more acres have to be opened to the forces of wind and water. Meanwhile, mainstream farmers are using chemical weed killers and conservation tillage to replace ''bare earth'' farming systems such as plowing.

Given the FAO's shabby record on farm science, there's more than a little suspicion among agricultural professionals that the organization's primary reason for the World Food Summit is to generate big pledges, justifying more high-salaried U.N. bureaucrats.

So give three cheers for the world food summit if you want. Consider it a fitting moment to praise the hard-working farmers and scientists all over the world who have made famine something we watch on the History Channel.

And as the United Nation's FAO turns its back one more time on farm science, remember that those high-yielding seeds and farming systems are not only keeping your food costs low, they are also saving extra land for wildlife.

Dennis T. Avery is editor of the Global Food Quarterly, author of ''Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic'' and was formerly the State Department's senior agricultural analyst.

Pub Date: 6/11/96

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