in Foreign Policy
This article by Lester Brown in the Winter 1973-1974 edition of Foreign Policy discusses the realities of the food scarcity in 1973.
Despite what government officials would like the public to think, the food scarcity problems are quite extensive and are not likely to “disappear” anytime soon. “The soaring demand for food, spurred by continued population growth and rising affluence, has begun to outrun the productive capacity of the world’s farmers and fishermen. The result has been declining food reserves, skyrocketing food prices, food rationing in three of the world’s most populous countries, intense international competition for exportable food supplies, and export controls on major foodstuffs by the world’s principal food supplier.” The U.S. has tried to downplay the urgency of a need to respond to these issues. In addition to increasing world population, increasing affluence is another factor contributing to the food scarcity problem. Brown uses the consumption of grain and livestock products to show how rising affluence has affected the world demand for food.
According to Brown, “There are two basic ways of expanding the world food supply from conventional agriculture. One is to expand the area under cultivation. The other, largely made possible by the advancement in the use of agricultural chemicals and in plant genetics, is to raise output on the existing cultivated area.” The latter, being the most successful over the past twenty years. Several countries have increased their per acre yields, making them “self-sufficient” for a time being. The use of “high-yielding seed varieties” has also helped to contribute to slowing of the famine. Prospects for expanding the area under cultivation are not promising. Misuse of the land in many countries has hurt prospects of long-term solutions. Other problems are the accessibility of water for irrigation purposes, the increasing need for fertilizers and pesticides, and the rising costs of energy.
Technological advances in new food production have proven to be quite imaginative, but overall less successful than anticipated. Two suggestions or approaches for inventing new food supplies have included using “fish to produce fish protein concentrate” and “using single-celled microorganisms…to convert petroleum into edible forms of protein.” High hopes for these new methods have been dashed due to technical problems, including cost.
Constraints on the production of proteins such as beef, soybeans, and marine protein are the most important issues concerning protein production. Regarding beef, the two major constraints are the speed at which calves are born and bred, and the reduction of the land available for grazing. Pertaining to soybean production, the failure to successfully increase the per acre yield is the major issue. Due to over-fishing, the world supply of protein from fish has dramatically declined. Despite fish consumption averages, fish is an important source of protein.
World grain reserves have steadily decreased since the early 1960’s, while the consumption of these grains has continued to increase. Another issue concerning the grain reserves is the lack of idle land in which to grown grain. The need to “dip into” the idle cropland in 1973 diminished the amount available for use and will likely evaporate entirely.
“The United States and Canada today control a larger share of the world’s exportable supplies of grains than the Middle East does of oil.” The U.S. is also the chief exporter of soybeans. Because the U.S. is a leader in the world food markets it has gained advantages such as use of Russia’s Siberian energy sources. But dependence on U.S. sources could be devastating if a drought were to occur.
In order to accommodate poorer countries in supplying their people with food, the U.S. has come up with new food aid legislation. One approach was to implement export controls, which increased inflation, despite its intention of lowering inflation. Because the food scarcity problem is looking like it is going to last for quite awhile, measures to control exports are extremely important.
Because the U.S. can’t continue to be the world’s food reserve, steps to create a world food reserve are necessary. “A system of global food reserves would provide a measure of price stability in the world food economy that would be in the self-interest of all nations.” In order for this to be successful, all participating countries would have to agree on terms of the reserve system.
Slowing the population growth in richer countries doesn’t seem to be as big of an issue as in poorer countries. It has been shown that population growth can be accomplished by providing for the basic needs of people in order to reduce birth rates. The costs of such implementations are less than should be expected. Brown feels that the U.S. should adopt a zero population growth policy in order to even out growth rates.
“The greatest opportunities for increased production are in the developed countries, the world’s greatest reservoir of untapped food-production potential.” With help from the U.S., poorer countries could better utilize their resources in order to increase production, which could in effect, create more jobs.
Despite the governments’ recognition of a food scarcity issue, little else has been done in order to rectify the looming situation. They are trying to convince everyone that
everything will “work out” in the end and demands will be met. Instead of trying to avoid and underplay the issue, Brown feels that the U.S. should take should take steps in creating a world food reserve, to address this issue. Without backing from the U.S., relations with other countries will end up strained and could end up causing more conflicts.