Food summit at Rome Views differ: Crises are political failure, not insufficient production.

November 22, 1996

THE UNITED Nations food summit in Rome highlights differences of opinion over what the problem is. At the last conference in 1974, many experts thought that world population had overtaken world food production. That turned out not to have been true then, and it is not true yet.

Great philosophical questions were raised that were not susceptible to agreement. One is whether population growth is the problem and needs to be curtailed. Another pits the U.S., committed to biotechnological advance, against those who believe that genetically altered grains reduce nutrition and increase Third World dependence.

A third dispute is between economic philosophies. The European Union, as a bureaucracy presiding over great "mountains" of overproduction, is committed to managed distribution. The U.S. Department of Agriculture favors free-market economics. The World Bank admits to having ignored agriculture recently and promises greater investments in poor countries.

None of this addresses the food crises that periodically capture the headlines. The great international relief efforts -- in former Yugoslavia, in Somalia and now in Zaire and Rwanda -- do not relate to the problems of finite food production capacity at all.

Every crisis for which intervention is the answer is not a food problem but a political or social failure. Food was available but people with guns kept other people from getting it. Where malnutrition is endemic, it is a poverty problem. Food is available but people cannot afford it, producing nothing the world values.

It is the non-food problems that voluntary agencies with government support know how to ameliorate. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates, however, that 75 percent more food must be produced as the world's population surges from 5.7 billion to 8.7 billion by 2030. Such projections 22 years ago were wrong, which does not mean this one is. If it is right, there will be no surplus food for food emergency programs in the Zaires of 2030.

Pub Date: 11/22/96

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