World food summit sees hopeful future


ROME -- My intention is not to be cold or calculating, but if we are talking about numbers of people starving as the Rwanda/Zaire catastrophe comes to its terrifying boil, we should also take time out to see just how much progress has been made in "feeding the hungry" over the last 25 years.

The World Food Summit in Rome, now in progress, is a marker. The last one, in 1974, was held at a time of a great crisis when failed harvests in the Soviet Union, China, India and Australia, combined with a sharply diminished anchovy catch off the Peruvian coast, pushed up grain prices four fold.

The future seemed exceedingly bleak. The world was in danger of running out of food and, in alarm, Henry Kissinger, the U.S. Secretary of State, pushed for the food conference and came himself to Rome to pledge that "within a decade no child will go to bed hungry."

In one sense it was an empty pledge. Time and time again -- and Rwanda/Zaire is only the latest manifestation -- the well-fed nations of the world are invariably slow off the mark when famine strikes. At the time of the great Ethiopian famine in 1984, it took a pop music star, Bob Geldof, to shake everyone up.

Enormous progress

Moreover, in another sense, Mr. Kissinger's conference resolution was pregnant with contest. An enormous amount of progress has been made in the span of a generation to feed reasonably and adequately the overwhelming majority of an exploding world population.

Two decades ago, one in three persons in the Third World, totaling about 92 million people, had inadequate access to food. Now it has been reduced to one in five. There are still about 840 million people undernourished but given that in the interim the world's population has jumped from around 4 billion to nearer 6 billion, one can see how remarkable is the progress made.

In fact, per capita availability of food for direct human consumption is 20 percent higher than it was 35 years ago.

The potential exists to produce enough food for everyone in the world. There will continue to be, if poor people could only afford it, enough food, as Jesse Jackson used to say, "to serve every man's need if not his greed."

Pessimists unconvinced

The pessimists, like Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, are not convinced. They point to the evidence that world agricultural growth has been slowing down. It fell from 3 percent yearly in the 1960s to 1.9 percent in the 1990s. Agriculture, in that doomsayers' book, "has reached an ominous turning point."

Having met many times with the protagonists of both sides of this argument, I am more persuaded by the analysis of the food experts at the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

They make the point that we do not require the growth rates of the past since the diet of the developed world (which consumes half of the world's agricultural products) is already more than satisfactory. Moreover, the slowdown in world population growth also contributing to a lessening of demand.

This is why the organization's extrapolations are all fairly benign, and rightly so. The chronically under-nourished as a percentage of the population are expected to decline in all regions.

The percentage of the population of the Third World which is hungry will fall from 21 percent to 12 percent over the next 15 years. Only in Africa will their actual numbers increase. But even in Africa there is now the serious beginnings of a remarkable turnaround with a number of countries experiencing growth rates of east Asian proportions.

Beyond 2010 the continued demands of population growth, raised consumer expectations, pressure on finite land and water resources and unsustainable agriculture on fragile lands could threaten world food security.

Yet there are a number of mitigating factors.

First, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union will make more efficient use of food; and, second, the most populous region in the world, East Asia, will not need to maintain the very fast growth in consumption of the recent past, as its general nutritional level rises. At present rates of development it will, before very long, reach a level of nutrition both reasonable and satisfying.

The signs of success past and success future shouldn't make us complacent. Rather, it should spur us to finish the job of insuring that no child will go to bed hungry.

We do know how to do it, as the principal summit document, "Food for All," makes abundantly clear. Dr. Kissinger's pledge could be realized, later than he suggested, but certainly by the end of the first decade of the next century. It is not a question of knowledge but of determination and single-mindedness.

If this summit can provide the political chemistry for that it will have been a success. If it fails to generate the energy, direction and resources required it will be a historic opportunity badly missed.

Jonathan Power writes a syndicated column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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