The more we grow, the less able we are to feed ourselves

Rain may be ruining crops here, but globally there are record harvests. Yet it's still not enough to meet demand

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The world is consistently failing to grow enough crops to feed itself, alarming official statistics show.

The world is consistently failing to grow enough crops to feed itself, alarming official statistics show.

Humanity has squeaked through so far by eating its way into stockpiles built up in better times. But these have fallen sharply and are now at the lowest level on record.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) latest report on global food production says that this year's harvest is expected to fall short of meeting consumption for the fifth year running.

Even a forecast record harvest this year is failing to ease the crisis. This suggests that rising demand, through population growth and increasing affluence, is outpacing production, fulfilling the gloomy predictions of Thomas Malthus over 200 years ago.

Warnings of increasing scarcity of two other key resources came last week. Mark Clare, the managing director of British Gas, said: "The era of cheap energy is over." And experts at an international symposium in Stockholm foretold an imminent world crisis as underground reserves of water are increasingly pumped dry.

A major UN-backed conference in London this week will attempt to revive a globaleffort to tackle population growth. Countdown 2015 will assess an international plan of action agreed 10 years ago and make recommendations for the next decade.

Between 1950 and 1997 the world's grain harvest almost trebled to around 1,900 million tons. But then production effectively stagnated: since 1999 it has fallen behind consumption every year.

The FAO report - the latest edition of its quarterly review, Food Outlook - predicts "a substantial increase" in the harvest, to 1,956 million tons, by far the biggest ever. But it warns that even this level of output would not keep pace with consumption, causing "a fifth consecutive drawdown of global cereal stocks".

Experts say that recent good weather in almost all the main growing regions, in contrast to Britain where August rain has devastated crops, has boosted the bumper harvest even further. But even optimistic estimates do not expect any recovery of stocks - now at their lowest level ever, well below the 70 days' supply needed for world food security.

Lester Brown, president of Washington's Earth Policy Institute, says: "There has been the odd bad year or two in the past. But this is the first time in history that we have had such an extended period where the world has failed to feed itself.

"This year's harvest is going to be extraordinarily good. It is striking that even in such an exceptional year we are unable to rebuild stocks."

The situation is particularly serious in China, where the grain harvest has fallen in four of the past five years. In 2003 it grew 70 million tons less than in 1998 - a drop that is equivalent to the entire production of Canada, a leading grain exporter.

Before 1999 China built up large stocks but has since eaten its way through half of them. Experts say that if the giant country has to start importing grain, its massive needs will increase scarcity and drive up food prices worldwide.

China's harvests have partly fallen because it is rapidly losing fertile land as cities spread and soil erodes through overcultivation - and because the groundwater needed to irrigate crops is drying up.

It is the same story worldwide. Population growth and the loss of land have cut the amount of fertile land available to feed each person in half since 1960. And more than half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling rapidly and wells are running dry.

Experts at the Stockholm Water Symposium last week warned that millions of wells throughout Asia were rapidly depleting supplies; the amount of irrigated land in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, for example, has shrunk by half in the last decade.

Rising affluence is partly responsible. As people become better off they eat more meat: animals consume several pounds of grain for every pound of meat they produce.

But population growth is even more significant. This week's conference, partly organised by the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation and Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation, marks a particularly important staging post in the world's attempts to tackle overpopulation.

The meeting can celebrate considerable success. The rate of increase in human numbers has slowed dramatically - from 2 per cent a year in 1970 to 1.3 per cent now. Forty years ago, on average, every woman in the world bore six children: now that figure is below three.

The doom-mongering predictions of the 1970s - that, for example, the population could grow to 60 billion, nearly 10 times the present level - have long been abandoned.

But there is still a crisis: 76 million people are born each year - about 240,000 a day - adding to the demand for food, water and other resources. The UN does not expect word population to stabilise until it has risen from today's 6.4 billion to 9 billion.

Nearly half of the world's people are under 25, and mostly able to reproduce. And the greatest growth is expected in the countries least able to cope with it: the UN estimates that the population of the world's 48 poorest countries could treble by 2050.

Ten years ago 179 countries agreed a practical plan of action at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. It included increasing the availability of contraceptives but also other measures that have a dramatic effect on population growth, especially improving the lives of young women through providing schooling and healthcare.

This has shown results, but the world has provided less than half the funds needed to implement it. And the programme is now being sabotaged by the Bush administration, which has cut off its contributions to the UN Population Fund and crippled national programmes because of its opposition to abortion.

New Malthusians

By Martin Newell, 'IoS' Poet in Residence

Cranefly thin comes Africa
Its begging bowl held up before
The acetone of starving breath
Which soughs on Europe's fortress door
From marching wraiths of rainless plains
All swaddled pale in dusty gauze
The skeletons of stillborn states
Who scratch the walls with bony claws
We waddle through the shopping malls
Burn lights all day, eat fuel all night
In sleepless greed with anxious eyes
On adverts which assert our right
To grain and petrol - petrol/grain
The rich man's crop, the fat man's pride
The boardroom sits and shrugs its hands
An old equation pushed aside
The east will breed, the west must shop
What Malthus dares to raise his voice
Against the witless appetites
Of freedom, travel, sex and choice?
With barn half-empty, stocks gone down
As boats return from catchless seas
The farmer hears the low-pitched hum
Of locusts on a searing breeze
The shadow of the wealthy falls
Obscures the light and keeps at bay
The facts too hard to countenance
On continents too far away
And while the water-wasting west
Will witter on about its diet
A wind whips up around its walls
But Malthus - if he's there, keeps quiet

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