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If we try, we can feed the world


THANKSGIVING WEEK ushers in a holiday season in which Americans revel in abundance -- and, inevitably, are reminded that their good fortune is not shared by everyone.

Although hunger in our own country is a blot on a nation blessed with affluence, it cannot compare to the starvation-level poverty that affects 1.3 billion people in the developing world. These lives are at stake as scientists, demographers and policy makers argue over whether the world will be able to feed the 8 billion or so people expected on the Earth by the year 2025.

The value of worst-case warnings lies in the fact that, with appropriate actions, dire predictions don't have to come true. The conviction that humankind can prevent mass famine fuels the work of the Consultative Group on Internation Agricultural Research.

This research consortium of 52 governments, international organizations and private foundations believes in a far better outcome than the doom-sayers imagine. It assumes that countries around the world will adopt sound agricultural policies and that there will be ample funding for agricultural research.

"Sound agricultural policies" includes such politically difficult moves as land reforms, to allow small farmers to make more productive use of available land and, in the process, provide better diets for their own families.

Ensuring adequate funding for agricultural research will be a huge challenge, not just in stable, affluent democracies like the United States, where political trends are moving away from government support of basic research, but also in developing countries with fewer resources and many needs that seem more pressing than longer-range efforts.

But if countries large and small can keep their eye on the goal, many scientists believe the world could see a global increase in food supplies that would surpass even the impressive gains of the "green revolution" of the 1960s and '70s, when fertilizers and other techniques dramatically increased crop yields around the world.

New ways of increasing crop yields have already produced gains big enough to feed 1 billion more people than in 1971. Further research can continue that trend, especially by concentrating on improvements for small farmers in the developing world.

New varieties of crops

Hardier crops, such as a drought-tolerant strain of corn, mineral-enriched grains and beans, a hybrid potato that reaches harvest size in 100 days rather than 150 -- all these advances can make a significant difference in food supplies and nutrition.

The usefulness of these advances depends on making them widely accessible, especially to poor people. But will poor countries have the political will to enact land reforms that enable small farms to prosper in areas where, unlike the U.S., labor is cheap and plentiful? And will countries large and small recognize the importance of agricultural research?

Recent reports suggest that the world's population will stabilize sooner than expected. Even so, the optimistic scenario offered by the consultative group and the more alarming predictions of widespread starvation differ less in their assumptions about the number of mouths to feed two or three decades from now than in their belief in the world's ability to increase food supplies.

Small gains can come from hardier varieties of traditional crops, better ways of managing land and water, efforts to improve the health and productivity of small livestock holders or projects in which farmers learn to grow trees commercially, helping preserve the environment and boosting their own incomes.

Add these up, and the long-term effect can do more than avert large-scale disaster. It can increase living standards for the world's poorest people, saving lives that now are lost in thousands of daily tragedies unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Predicting disaster is also passing judgment. Plenty of scientists tell us we can feed the world. If we fail to do so, it will be because we didn't try hard enough, not because it couldn't be done.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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