The food runs out

The world's cupboard is bare. Even Europe's grain mountain has vanished, reports Geoffrey Lean
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The Independent Online
TANGMERE Airfield, a windswept collection of run-down runways a few miles north of Bognor Regis, is not the first place you would look for dramatic evidence of an impending world crisis. Tucked up against a nondescript housing estate, within sight of the South Downs and sound of the A27, it looks as if nothing very interesting has happened to it in half a century.

Then, it is true, Tangmere had its moment in the cockpit of history. From here the legless flying ace, Douglas Bader, led his three squadrons of Spitfires over Nazi-occupied France, collecting a chestful of medals and being held up as an example for a generation of schoolboys. But in recent years Tangmere has seen harvests rather than heroes reaching for the sky. Its giant hangars have housed part of Britain's contribution to the European Union's grain mountain.

Until now, that is. Each of the three hangars was packed with food only a year ago but now contains more than half-a-million cubic feet of nothing. Only the occasional grain of barley missed by the sweepers bears witness to the vast surpluses that have dominated perceptions of European agriculture and the rhetoric of politicians venturing to discuss it.

It is the same all over the country. There are 36 such stores scattered across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland - and all are empty. Last year, says the Intervention Board, the official manager of surpluses, Britain was hoarding more than a million tonnes of cereals of all kinds. Now, it says, all that is left is 150 tonnes of barley - and that only remains because it is too small an amount for anyone to be bothered to cart it away.

"The cupboard is bare," says the board. "There is nothing in store. There is no skimmed milk, no butter and virtually no beef and grain."

The Ministry of Agriculture agrees. "l do not know what the appropriate geological simile is," says a senior official, "but it is as if there had been an enormous earthquake. Not long ago there was a chain of mountains; now all that is left is a level plain."

This quake has been felt all over Europe, and all over the planet, and it may well presage disasters. The world - where 35,000 children die every day from hunger-related diseases even in years of good harvests - is suddenly becoming desperately short of food. Europe's surpluses have shrunk at bewildering speed. Two years ago there were 33 million tonnes of grain in store; now there are only five-and-a-half million tonnes.

Worldwide grain stocks, which cushion the world against serious scarcity, have slumped to their lowest-ever level, lower even than they were at the height of the world food crisis 21 years ago, and well beneath the two months' supply which the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has ever since reckoned to be "the minimum necessary to safeguard world food security". In 1987 there were 104 days' supplies in store; by the end of this year this will have dropped to 53 days' worth. By next year only 49 days' supply is expected to remain.

The stocks are disappearing because, for the third year in succession, the world has produced less food than it consumed. The latest figures show that this year's harvest of grain, some 1,891 million tonnes, is 3 per cent lower than in 1994, itself a bad year. Less food has been produced per head of population than at any time since 1975.

The scorching summer - the hottest ever recorded across much of the northern hemisphere - devastated crops in the United States, Canada, and parts of the former Soviet Union and Europe. The US has had its worst harvest for four years; Russia its worst in three decades, producing only two- thirds of the amount in 1992. Spain, suffering from its fourth consecutive year of drought, harvested little more than half as much wheat as in 1994. China is increasingly being forced to import grain.

Nor has the southern hemisphere escaped. Argentina, one of the world's great grain exporters, is suffering from its worst drought in 40 years. With Australia also producing a disappointing harvest, all of the world's traditional generators of surpluses have had a bad year. In the words of the International Grains Council: "The weather has done more in one season to cut grain surpluses than the politicians have achieved in years of trying."

"If the truth be told, this has surprised most of us," says Bob Fiddeman, a member of the executive of the National Farmers' Union who cultivates 12,000 acres near Hemel Hempstead. "The situation has turned around amazingly fast."

AS FOOD has got scarcer, food prices have soared to record levels. European prices, kept artificially high for 20 years, have been overtaken by those on the world market. For the first time in two decades the EU has stopped subsidising food exports to make them competitive. Instead - such is the extent of the turnaround - it is preparing to tax exports to stop its relatively cheap grain being gobbled up by the rest of the world. The first levies are expected to be imposed this month.

The rising prices are good for farmers and for speculators ("Everywhere you look the news is bullish," said one London trader surveying the disastrous harvests), but bad for everyone else, particularly in developing countries. Poor and hungry nations will have to find another pounds 2bn next year to pay for the same amount of food.

Many, it is thought, will not be able to raise the cash. But they will be lucky to be bailed out, as in the past, by food aid, for this is being heavily cut as rich countries grow meaner. This year it fell to 10 million tonnes - the lowest level in more than a decade, down from 17 million tonnes in 1993 - causing Catherine Bertini, the executive director of the UN's World Food Programme, which is in charge of getting the aid where it is needed, to say that her agency was "operating hand to mouth".

Next year, courtesy of cuts brought in by the Republican majority in the US Congress, food aid is expected to slump to 7.6 million tonnes, less than a third of what will actually be needed even if the world escapes a severe famine of the kind that gripped Ethiopia 10 years ago.

"It is going to be very difficult," says Francis Mwanza of the UN programme. If the shortage of food in some countries reaches that of Ethiopia, the world will, once again, see a disaster, he warns.

The likeliest candidate for such a catastrophe is southern Africa, where 10 million people need emergency food aid, after drought cut the harvest in half. Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe are in particularly bad trouble.

Millions more people in the Horn of Africa desperately need assistance, and there are serious shortages in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Tajikistan and many other countries.

With stocks reduced and margins of safety gone, everything depends on getting good crops next year. The FAO - which has been warning of this impending crisis since last spring - says that the harvest will have to increase by 5 per cent if the world is simply to manage, and by between 8 million and 9 million tonnes if it is to start replenishing the granaries to ensure better security in future.

Already, in another U-turn, the EU is trying to boost production by putting some of its set-aside land back under the plough. Next year farmers will only have to keep 10 per cent of their arable land idle, compared with 15 per cent two years ago.

The world has been here once before, in the food crisis of 1974, and that time it just got by. Two decades of relative abundance followed. Is the shortage becoming apparent now just another blip? Or is it the start of a great hunger?

Lester Brown is an incorrigible optimist turned prophet of doom. Twenty- five years ago, as a former adviser to the US agriculture secretary, he published a book hailing a "green revolution" in which crop yields in developing countries multiplied, providing an answer to world hunger. Now, as president of the authoritative Worldwatch Institute in Washington, he believes that an epoch-making shift is taking place, from an age of overall abundance to one of scarcity.

"In the coming era," he says "food supplies will be limited and the effects of shortages will be felt everywhere."

He is challenged with equal authority. A mammoth FAO study reckons that, with the exception of Africa, the world will be better fed in 2010 than it is today, while the International Food Policy Research Institute (also based in Washington) has said that the world will manage to feed the 8 billion people expected by 2020. Much of Lester Brown's anxiety is based on his belief that food production will fall far below demand in China, causing it to import grain massively, but this is hotly contested by the Chinese government.

All the same, Mr Brown can point to some disquieting trends. After rising steadily for decades, the world's food production has levelled off since 1990, while the number of people it has to feed has grown by 440 million, more than seven-and-a-half times the population of Britain.

And the world is, literally, losing ground. Every year 24 billion tonnes of topsoil are blown or washed away by erosion resulting from over-use. At least a quarter of the Earth's land surface has already been degraded in this way: some estimates put it at nearer 40 per cent.

It takes 1,000lbs of water to produce a single pound of wheat, and yet water, too, is becoming scarce. The US Midwest, the world's breadbasket, largely depends on the giant Ogallala aquifer, which stretches for 1,000 miles beneath eight states. So much is being taken from this hidden sea that its level is dropping by four feet a year. If this goes on, the agricultural abundance of the Great Plains is expected to last only another 20 years. The water table near Peking has dropped from 15ft to 150ft beneath the ground since 1950, while the Yellow River this year dried up some 400 miles from the sea.

Increasing food production has relied on ever-rising doses of fertiliser; its use grew tenfold between 1950 and 1989. But the law of diminishing returns is now at work: each ton of fertiliser applied in the US corn belt or Indonesian paddy fields now boosts yields by only half as much as it did 20 years ago. Indeed, global fertiliser use has fallen heavily over the past six years as more and more farmers have realised that their jaded soils can take no more.

There is no rescue to be found at sea, for the oceans are being depleted faster than the land. Every one of the world's major fishing areas has now reached or exceeded its natural limit of exploitation, and about half of them are already in serious decline. After growing twenty-fold since the turn of the century, the world's fish catch fell sharply in 1990 and has not recovered since.

On the other hand, scientists may develop new "miracle crops", like those that ushered in the green revolution in the 1960s: researchers at one of the powerhouses of this revolution, the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, are working on a new "super-rice" which they hope will boost yields by 25 per cent. But the institute itself is now warning of the danger of massive hunger early next decade, and aid to it and similar crop research institutes is declining.

Professor MS Swaminathan, the director, warns: "The nightmare of world hunger that was stopped by the 'green revolution' may return to haunt us." He blames what he calls "the greed revolution" as well as population growth; as people become more affluent they eat more and move up the food chain, consuming more meat which itself takes vast amounts of grain to produce.

The optimists rightly point out that there is still great potential for increasing crop yields in many parts of the world, most notably in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But even they predict that, while the world as a whole may produce enough to meet its needs, it will be sharply divided, with poor nations increasingly dependent on surpluses produced by the rich. Transporting vast amounts of grain to them will be costly and logistically difficult, while a new era of food politics will put far greater power in the hands of the United States and a few other surplus countries than was ever enjoyed by OPEC in its heyday.

SO CAN there be any hope? Can the world produce enough to feed itself at present levels, and eliminate the monstrous death- toll among children that takes place even in good years? And can the produce be grown in the developing countries where it is needed, without accelerating environmental destruction?

Despite the views of the pessimists, the answer seems to be "yes" - as long as the problem is addressed from the point of view of the world's most neglected resource - poor farmers in developing countries. Study after study shows that small farmers tending tiny plots of land produce far more food per acre than richer ones with bigger holdings. The reason is that they have to; they need all the food they can produce. And, given help, they can dramatically increase production. A recent study by Jules Pretty, director of the Sustainable Agriculture Programme at the London- based International Institute of Environment and Development, shows that they can increase output two or three times over with simple, affordable techniques that do not damage the environment.

They do need help, particularly access to credit, so that they can borrow to make improvements, and their countries need land reform to split up the big, unproductive estates and give the poor a chance. Where this has happened properly, harvests have increased and the poverty that causes hunger even in times of abundance has fallen - both at the same time.

But so far the poor farmers have been largely ignored; they have no political or economic clout and most governments, both in their own countries and in aid-donor countries, havepassed them by. But this may be changing. At a conference in Brussels next week organised by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the European Commission and several European governments, the major aid agencies will for the first time meet hundreds of representatives of the world's small farmers to discuss what needs to be done.

If this and similar initiatives can succeed in beginning to inaugurate a "patchwork revolution", the world may yet be able to avoid future food crises like the one now given dramatic emphasis by the empty hangars at Tangmere Airfield.