Running Out of Food

In the Human Interest: A Strategy to Stabilize World Population

by Lester R. Brown
Norton, 190 pp., $6.95

One year ago, the director of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Dr. A. Boerma, wrote that the world had become dangerously dependent on current harvests, and therefore on the weather. Cereal stocks were at the lowest level in twenty years. “The world food situation,” Boerma wrote, “is more difficult than at any time since the years immediately following the devastation of the Second World War.”

All this year, Boerma and others have warned again and again that food prices and supplies would be determined in 1974 by floods and pestilence and drought. Listening this spring to officials of the UN World Food Conference I heard, again and again, hopes and prayers for good weather. US government experts agreed on the importance of this year’s American corn and wheat harvest, but they predicted record crops for what Agriculture Secretary Butz described in April as our “virtually disaster proof” agriculture.

In May Dr. Boerma came to New York and spoke again of the memory of 1945. Later that month I talked with an administrator of the UN’s relief agency, a man who had directed food relief programs during and after the Second World War. This man spoke of the food situation in 1945, and in 1974, and of the seventy days that it would take, in an emergency, for food supplies to reach Calcutta from Galveston. World food prospects, he said, were fearsomely dependent upon the Indian monsoon that was expected to start in June.

As I write, in late summer, the natural conditions for food shortages have been met. Certain, perhaps many, of the disorders that Boerma feared have come about. In the United States, corn and soybean crops have been damaged by a drought lasting through July. Corn farmers will need at least $1 billion in disaster assistance; the Department of Agriculture, which earlier this year expected a harvest of 6.4 billion bushels of corn, now estimates a crop of 4.97 billion bushels.

The July midwestern drought was the most serious of the natural misfortunes this year in the main grain-exporting countries: from spring floods in Iowa and Nebraska and Canada (the worst in twenty-five years), to the worst insect plague in thirty years in the wheat regions of South Australia, with an “explosion” of locust hatchings and red-legged earth mites.

The quality of the Indian monsoon, and thus of the wet season harvest, will not be known before October—in the words of a World Bank official, “not before it’s over.” The monsoon rains did not come in June as expected. In July they fell into the southern Indian Ocean. Then they fell in Calcutta, but not in some important food-producing regions. Then floods washed away crops in the east of India and in Bangladesh, while certain central provinces were still dry. In Bangladesh, now, it is estimated by The New York Times that the floods destroyed 80 percent of the summer crop and many of that winter’s seedlings—40 percent …

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