Copyright (c) 1996, Roanoke Times

DATE: Sunday, November 17, 1996              TAG: 9611200007
SECTION: HORIZON                  PAGE: 1    EDITION: METRO 
SOURCE: The Associated Press


DECADE by decade, the land has provided - wheat fields, rice paddies, bulging silos of corn keeping pace with a growing world population. But now the grain harvests have leveled off, the people have not, and the world is left to wonder where its next century's meals will come from.

The blip in the upward slope of grain production in the 1990s has ready explanations: Economics, politics and weather conspired to hold down global output.

But some specialists believe longer-range forces, from the Kansas prairie to China's river deltas, are also at work - and the outlook is troubling.

Troubling enough, in Africa particularly, for the Food and Agriculture Organization to hold a global summit in Rome to search for new approaches to help poor nations grow, buy or otherwise get more food.

``We are in a crisis situation,'' said FAO chief Jacques Diouf.

His U.N. agency projects world agricultural production must expand by 75 percent by 2025 to match population growth. It's not off to a good start.

New FAO figures show that the global grain harvest - forecast at 1,821 million tons for 1996-97 - will have increased by just 2.3 percent since 1990, while population was growing 10 percent.

Grain is the surest gauge of food supplies, because it provides most of man's calories, either directly or through grain-fed meat.

Because of this lag in production, grain prices rose and the world's buffer stocks of wheat, rice and other grains were drawn down. Reserves now stand at 277 million tons - some 40 million below what the FAO considers safe to meet emergencies.

A mix of factors helped stunt the decade's crops: Agriculture collapsed with the political system in the former Soviet Union; the U.S. and other governments began ``de-subsidizing'' farmers' grain surpluses; poor growing weather plagued America and Russia; Chinese grainland was giving way to factories and exploding cities.

Some see deeper causes, however.

Lester Brown of Washington's Worldwatch Institute maintains that fertilizers and high-yield grain varieties have been pushed to their limit in many places. And underground water sources, from Kansas and Colorado to Iran and India, are drying up.

``I think each year now it will become more difficult to rebuild grain stocks,'' Brown said.

Worldwatch sees China as a huge problem. Shrinking croplands, rising incomes and a growing middle-class appetite for meat - an inefficient means for passing along the calories of grain - have combined to turn China, almost overnight, into the world's No. 2 grain importer, behind Japan.

``It is only a matter of time until China's grain import needs overwhelm the export capacity of the United States and other exporting countries,'' Brown contended.

Others dispute his pessimism. A key FAO forecaster, Nikos Alexandratos, said Brown relies on shaky Chinese statistics.

Besides, he said, ``you cannot visualize the coexistence of a country like China advancing in income and consumption at the same time as its agriculture, which supports 60 percent of the population, goes into permanent decline.''

On the broader, global point, the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank, finds some agreement among major studies that birth rates may slow enough to allow a plodding agriculture to keep up with ``effective'' demand - the demand from consumers with the money to buy.

But that scenario comes with asterisks attached: In Africa and other poor regions without that money, hundreds of millions will remain underfed. And a permanently tighter balance between supply and demand will leave the world more vulnerable to weather shocks and price shocks.

To Luther Tweeten, the outcome is far from clear.

Looking ahead to 2030, the Ohio State University agricultural economist stacked the global trend in per-acre yields - rising ever more slowly - up against U.N. population projections. The yields lose out.

``I don't want to take a Lester Brown approach on this,'' Tweeten said, but the world cannot be complacent. ``It's daunting.''

The specialists say progress must be made on several fronts:

*Russia and other former Soviet republics must be rebuilt into major grain exporters.

*More fertilizer should be spread in Africa and other places where it is underused because of its expense.

*High-production regions must cultivate what little good land still lies fallow.

*Governments must spend more on agricultural research.

Surprising innovations may prove crucial, Tweeten said - for example, an edible ``stew'' made out of dense biomass like willow trees or sugar cane. ``Science is the key to the future of food,'' he said.

At the FAO summit last week, delegates looked for keys to more food today.

The FAO estimates 800 million people are undernourished worldwide, at a time when high prices have undercut international food aid, slicing it in half since 1993 to today's 7.7 million tons of grain a year.

A goal of the summit was to try to encourage increased aid, stepped-up research and pro-agriculture policies in Africa and other food-short regions.

``The ultimate problem is economic development,'' Alexandratos said. ``They must get their own agriculture moving.''

But Brown sees one more ultimate solution - population control.

``I think we're now in a new situation where the primary responsibility for balancing food and people lies with family planners, rather than fishermen and farmers,'' he said. ``And I don't think the world has quite grasped that yet.''

Even China's aggressive family planning will take precious decades to stabilize its population, now 1.2 billion. By 2025, China's farmers - and grain importers - will have 400 million more mouths to feed.

* * *

From emerald rice paddies in the south to dusty cornfields of the north, China lacks land. It feeds more than one-fifth of the world's population on 7 percent of its arable land, some of which is fast giving way to housing, roads and other development.

China should use its comparative advantage to import grain and export industrial goods, argues Kang Xiaoguang, an economist at the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences

In 1996, China expects a record harvest of rice and other grains of 480 million tons, up from 465 million tons in 1995. Net imports are predicted to remain at about 17 million tons, or about 3 percent of total demand, according to official statistics.

But Kang forecasts China might eventually need to import more than one-fifth of the grain it consumes.

The government estimates that in 2025, when the population is expected to peak at 1.6 billion, China will need about 640 million tons of grain each year.

To help China's farmers grow more and more food on less and less land the government has vowed to spend more on irrigation, storage, transport and other farm infrastructure and to curb the loss of farmland to houses, roads, industries, erosion and shifting deserts.

Above all, farmers need improved technology, says Yoav Sarig, agricultural counselor at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing.

For farmers who can barely afford seeds and fertilizer, improved seed varieties offer more affordable, immediate returns.

New hybrids have helped to quadruple yields since the 1960s. Scientists hope to engineer further improvements in yields of staple cereal crops, most importantly rice - main fixture of the Chinese diet.

Since China first developed them in the late 1970s, hybrids have been sown in about half its rice paddies, raising yields by almost 50 percent. But future increases are bound to be less spectacular

* * *

The African continent is afflicted with chronic food shortages - because of drought, because of wars and other human failures, or simply because of poverty. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says 40 percent of the people in Africa south of the Sahara do not have enough food.

More than 1.4 million Kenyans are expected to need food aid if the October-November ``short'' rainy season remains dry.

Their plight raises new questions about how one of Africa's better-developed nations manages its agriculture and tries to ensure food supplies in times of shortage.

Although only 12 percent of Kenya's land is considered arable without irrigation, it has the expertise and resources many African nations lack to boost harvests and get crops to market. Fertilizer, pesticides and farm machinery are readily available.

But critics say wrongheaded policies, partisan politics, corruption and ineptness hamper food production and distribution in Kenya.

Population growth hurts, too. The number of Kenyans has exploded from 6 million in 1963 to an estimated 26 million. The production of corn and other grains, meanwhile, has plunged from 388 pounds per capita 20 years ago to 131 pounds.

Total grain output increased during that period, but not as much as it would have if land remained in food crops, instead of being bulldozed for development or converted to coffee, cut flowers or other cash commodities.

LENGTH: Long  :  161 lines
ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO:  AP. Even America's breadbasket is having its problems 

and can't be counted on to improve a bleak world food picture.


by CNB