Lester R. Brown, Worldwatch Institute

In mid-November, heads of state and ministers of agriculture will gather in Rome for the opening of the World Food Summit on November 13. This will be the first such gathering since the first world food conference held 22 years ago also in Rome.

At that gathering in November of 1974, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger promised that by 1984 no man, woman, or child would go to bed hungry. Although an expert in real politic, Henry Kissinger had little understanding of what was needed to eradicate hunger or how to implement a meaningful plan to do so. We have to hope that this gathering will be more successful.

Many things have changed since 1974. At that time, there were scarcely 4 billion people in the world. Today there are more than 5.8 billion. During the seventies, the world fish catch was expanding. It no longer is.

During the seventies, the world grain harvest was expanding rapidly. In recent years, it has expanded slowly.

From 1950 to 1990, the oceanic fish catch climbed from 19 million tons to 89 million tons, boosting seafood consumption per person as a whole from 8 kilograms per person to 17 kilograms per person. It was an era of phenomenal progress in boosting seafood consumption. But since 1990, there has been no growth in the catch. With all 17 oceanic fisheries being fished at or beyond capacity, there is little prospect for future growth in the oceanic fish catch. For the first time in history, the world's farmers can no longer count on fishermen to help them expand the world food supply.

From 1950 to 1990, the world grain harvest climbed from 631 million tons to 1,780 million tons, expanding by 182 percent. From 1990 to 1996, it increased to 1,830 millions, a gain of 3 percent. The contrast between these two periods is startling. For 4 decades, the world's farmers expanded the grain harvest at nearly 3 percent a year, but during the nineties they have expanded it by only 3 percent in 6 years. Even if farmers can somehow pick up the pace during the remaining 4 years of this decade, growth in the harvest promises to fall far short of earlier decades and far short of growing demand.

Although growth in the grain harvest is slowing, the world continues to add nearly 90 million people per year. If these additional 90 million cannot be fed from an expanded harvest, then they will be fed by reducing consumption among those already here.

Farmers now are coping not only with population growth but an unprecedented growth in affluence in Asia. Asia today, including the region from Pakistan east through Japan, contains 3.1 billion people. Excluding Japan, the regional economy has grown by nearly 8 percent a year in each of the past 4 years, enabling vast numbers of people to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products--pork, poultry, eggs, and beef. There is no precedent for the rate of economic expansion or the scale of the growth.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in China. From 1991 to 1995, the Chinese economy expanded by 57 percent, raising income per person by roughly half. Much of this boost in income went to diversify diets, consuming more livestock products. This explosive growth in the demand for grain, combined with a loss of cropland to rapid industrialization, converted China from a net exporter in 1994 to the world's second largest grain importer in 1995, trailing only Japan.

There are several reasons for the loss of momentum in the growth in the world grain harvest. For one thing, there is little fertile new land waiting to be plowed. There are some gains in cultivated area from reclamation projects, but overall, gains are small. They are likely to be offset by losses to nonfarm uses, to industrial expansion, to residential development, and to the construction of roads, highways, and parking lots to accommodate automobiles.

Water scarcity, too, is constraining growth in the harvest. Water tables are falling in major food-producing regions: the southern Great Plains of the United States, much of northern India, including the Punjab, the breadbasket of India, and in much of northern China. As aquifers are depleted, irrigation cutbacks are inevitable. Irrigated area is already shrinking in leading U.S. agricultural states, such as California, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado, and in some provinces of northern China.

In addition, the growing demand for water in cities is being satisfied by pulling irrigation water away from farmers. In cities as different as Los Angeles and Beijing, growing water demand is being satisfied by taking irrigation water from agriculture.

In many countries, the amount of fertilizer being used is pressing against the physiological capacity of existing crop varieties to use additional fertilizer. As a result, fertilizer use has leveled off or declined in North America, Western Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Japan.

In much of the world, the old formula of combining more and more fertilizer with ever higher yielding varieties that was so successful for nearly half a century is no longer working very well. And there is no new formula to take its place. This is not only a challenge to farmers, it is a challenge to our late twentieth century civilization. How political leaders respond to this potentially destabilizing situation in the next few years will tell us a great deal about the kind of world the next generation will be living in.

With these emerging constraints on efforts to expand food production, it comes as no surprise that there has been so little growth in the harvest during the nineties. This slowdown, combined with a continuing strong growth in demand, helps explain why world grain stocks have dropped in each of the last three years and why in 1996 carryover stocks of grain were at the lowest level on record. It also helps explain why both wheat and corn prices in the spring of this year were double those at the beginning of last year, with both climbing to all-time highs.

Rising grain prices may be the first economic indicator signalling trouble in the relationship between ourselves and the natural systems and resources on which we depend. It may be telling us that we are on demographic and economic paths that are not environmentally sustainable. The message may be that it is time to change direction.

Those most immediately effected by food scarcity are the 1.2 billion people who, according to the World Bank, live on $1 per day. Of this, at least 70 cents is spent on food. If food prices double, heads of households will simply not be able to buy enough food to sustain their families. They will hold their governments responsible for uncontrollable rises in food prices, taking to the streets. The result could be unprecedented political instability.

For those in the industrial world, the principal effects of higher food prices might be political instability in turn leading to economic instability. Economic instability could affect the profits of multinational corporations, the performance of stock markets, and the earnings of pension funds.

The bottom line of this analysis is that the world's fishermen and farmers can no longer assume the principal responsibility for achieving an acceptable balance between food and people. This responsibility may now lie with family planners.

There will be many documents coming from the Summit, but the one that is most needed may not be forthcoming in the absence of a frank assessment of the changing food prospect. The one document that is needed is a letter from Jacques Diouf, the FAO Director General, to his counterpart at the U.N. Population Fund, Nafis Sadik. It could be a short letter, one word would do: Help.

If national leaders fail to recognize the new constraints on efforts to expand food production and the associated need to dramatically step up efforts to stabilize world population, then food scarcity could lead to political instability and social disintegration in many countries, diminishing the economic prospect everywhere.

Fonte: Worldwatch Institute