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, perhaps, of the year’s food crop.
These climatic disorders by no means constitute a natural disaster on the scale of the Indian drought of 1972 or the Bangladesh floods of 1970. Wheat crops both in the US and in India were largely secure before the summer drought; the weather has been good in most other parts of the world. Yet it is certain, at the least, that grain reserves will not easily be rebuilt before next summer.
The consequences of the droughts and floods, meanwhile, have been made immensely worse by routine economic activity, by human unreason in the face of natural misfortune. Grain prices, including futures prices, have been relatively high this summer, nourished by poor weather reports and by the unstable reserve situation; a futures trader told me in July that gloomy news bulletins from Indian weather stations had sustained a “temporary firming pattern in the market.”
When the US Department of Agriculture in August released its new, low estimate of corn crops, the price of corn futures rose by the allowed limit on commodity exchanges. Speculators then bought other commodities—wheat, copper, pork bellies—in random panic. US corn, which is used largely to feed animals, is the world’s largest cereal crop, and an increasingly important US export; last December, an Agriculture Department official proclaimed that “the world’s food economy is running increasingly on US corn and soybeans.” In the days after the new crop estimate was released, America’s foreign customers scrambled to secure supplies: Japanese buyers placed orders for more corn than they had bought in the last many months.
This turmoil—these workings of the present food economy—will have the most serious consequences in the next weeks and months. US consumers can expect much higher food prices as the scarce, expensive corn is fed to successive generations of chickens, pigs, and cows; poor nations, such as India, will compete in an increasingly bloated world grain market. The Ford Administration is already considering restrictions on US grain exports, after the model of last year’s soybean embargo; the crop outlook has reduced prospects both for increasing foreign aid and for stores of grain being held available in Galveston against present and future natural disasters. In a dreadful circle, the difficult grain situation has served, finally, to strengthen opposition in Congress and in agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget to proposals for establishing internationally financed grain reserves.
Lester Brown’s new book is about the prospects for world population and world resources in the next ten years. But it has much to say about the present food situation. Brown, an economist who works for the Overseas Development Council, argues that the contemporary insecurity in world food supplies is a sign that “we have entered an era” of food scarcity, where demand for food “has begun to outrun” the capacity for producing food. He presents several important ideas about world food—ideas of which he has been for some years a persuasive exponent.
Brown describes the reduction of grain reserves over many years, to their current level of less than one month’s supply, and the inflationary effect of this reduction on food prices. He also argues that the “modern version of famine” has become less dramatic and photogenic than it was in West Bengal in 1943 or in Ireland in 1847, and more a matter of rising death rates. A study prepared for the World Food Conference estimates that half of all child deaths are “in some way attributable to malnutrition,” that 200 million living children are undernourished. Richard Critchfield has written that rural death rates in India increased from 14.0 per thousand five years ago to 16.9 per thousand in 1972, with the “two big new killers” gastroenteritis and respiratory infections.1 Critchfield writes that “the death rate in parts of Uttar Pradesh state reached 27.1 per thousand” in 1973; by comparison 9.4 people per thousand died last year in the US, and this death rate has been about the same for thirty years.
Brown describes the consequences of “affluence.” The rich consume more and more grain—almost a ton a year in North America, largely converted into animal proteins such as meat and eggs. He writes that “the agricultural resources—land, water, fertilizer—required to support an average North American are nearly five times those required to support the average Indian, Nigerian or Colombian.” The food assessment prepared recently by various UN agencies for the World Food Conference shows that developed countries used more grain for livestock feed in 1970 than “the total human consumption of China and India.”2
I am not sure that Brown proves to what extent the new “era” of world food problems is a consequence of what he calls the “ecological undermining of the food economy.” He argues that water and arable land are increasingly scarce and costly. He describes, for example, the deforestation of the Himalyas and their foothills and predicts that soil erosion will cause increasingly severe floods in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Yet he also writes that India and the US “have about the same crop area with somewhat similar characteristics,” and mentions the possibility of a “massive effort” to control erosion, comparable to US projects after the dust bowl period of the 1930s. These possibilities suggest that food prospects have more to do with political will than with environmental “overstress”; as they did four years ago when Brown wrote that “hunger…does not owe its existence to man’s ability to produce enough food…even in the poor countries themselves” (Seeds of Change, Praeger, 1970).
The authors of the World Food Conference assessment emphasize the economic and political, as distinct from the biological, limits to food production. Like Brown, they call for greater investment in tropical agriculture, with more irrigation, more agricultural research, and new ways of distributing fuel and fertilizer. They warn that present concern with food problems may be “again dissipated in a wave of optimism…following a few years of good harvests.” Even when world food production again grows faster than demand, the “surplus” may be in the wrong place. Extrapolating recent trends in food consumption and production, they find excess grain production in rich countries, with a more or less corresponding grain deficit in poor countries—and, by the 1980s, if these trends are allowed to continue, they fear “international trade problems” of virtually “unmanageable” scale.
Brown’s “strategy to stabilize world population” calls for all countries to achieve, by 1985, the present birth rate (24 births per thousand) of Taiwan, a nation which has been for two decades the cynosure of demographers’ admiration. His strategy is more a timetable, a call to action, than a plan. He emphasizes the social conditions necessary for reducing birth rates, even in the short run: improved education and health care, income redistribution, fuller employment, particularly in agriculture, and a secure food supply.
The achievement of these social reforms is of course a matter of political change. Yet Brown demonstrates, usefully, the low economic cost of certain social programs. He estimates, largely on the basis of UN statistics, that to teach everyone in developing countries to read, and to provide contraceptives and simple health care for every woman in the developing world, would cost less than $6 billion a year over the next five years (“China is excluded, for the simple reason that it is well on the way to achieving this goal”). As Brown writes, this cost is “within reach of the international community”—being roughly equal to, say, the amount of money the Defense Department spends each year in California, or to the six months trade deficit of the United Kingdom.
Brown deals briefly with the political implications of his strategy, both as it affects poor countries, in limiting population growth, and as it affects rich countries, in limiting economic growth, including growth in meat consumption. He says little about the objections of people in developing countries, particularly in relatively empty African countries, to many current “population plans,” and he places too much reliance, I think, on the prospects for achieving a “new social ethic.”
As we know from recent efforts at oil conservation, energy consumption—including the consumption of automobiles and wasteful space heating—is sustained by economic forces, as well as by consumer preferences and values. I would like to read more now about the political forces which affect meat consumption in rich countries: about the US government’s support for the meat industry, as in its recent purchase of frozen meat for next fall’s school lunches; about the economic incentives which have encouraged the industry to feed beefstock on grain and protein feeds, rather than on rangeland or on forages (which can support cattle but not such gastrically frail creatures as pigs and people); about the US trade policies which for at least three years have explicitly used “international tactics” and cultural “pressures” to encourage meat consumption in Japan and Western Europe, and hence the export market for US grains and feeds. 3
But changing trade policies, like changing the social ethic, is a matter of long and difficult effort. The great merit of Brown’s book lies in its suggestion that reform of world food policy is a necessary condition for stabilizing population; and in its demonstration of the consequences of the present insecurity in food trade and reserves.
The events of the last year, and of the past weeks, give a frightening view of the workings of the world food market. The US and other governments will decide, in the next months, whether they will be influenced—by corn crop predictions, commodity speculation, and the fear of further inflation—to impose food export embargos and to reduce food aid. Secretary Butz has suggested that America’s European customers use more of their wheat crop to feed animals instead of people. Meanwhile, in the next months, relief organizations will wait for floods and pestilence, or for the gathering of the wet season’s harvest in India. In the next months, too, the US and other governments will work out their positions for this November’s World Food Conference—a conference which, when it was planned during the “oil crisis” of last winter, looked to some like the occasion for an international commitment, however tentative, to a policy of food reserves.
When Herbert Hoover returned to Paris at the end of the First World War, after organizing food relief in occupied Europe and food production in the US, he believed that food distribution would be reformed in the “greater future,” and he “talked of abolishing want.” After the Second World War, the founders of the Food and Agriculture Organization believed, for a few months, that they too would abolish want, and that a World Food Board would hold food stocks and stabilize prices. The next months of government deliberations about grain stocks will determine whether Dr. Boerma of the modern FAO will evoke next year and in 1976, as he did last year and this, the example of 1945.
September 19, 1974
The New Republic, June 15, 1974. ↩
Assessment: Present Food Situation, UN Economic and Social Council, May 8, 1974. ↩
These pressures are described in the “Flanigan Report” of the President’s Council on International Economic Policy, prepared in 1972, and published by the Senate Agriculture Committee in April, 1973. ↩