And still the children go hungry

World food stocks are dangerously low. But do our leaders have the courage to avert catastrophe, asks Geoffrey Lean

Geoffrey Lean
Sunday 10 November 1996 00:02 GMT

Humanity faces an "unthinkable nightmare" of world hunger if it does not urgently set out to avert a threatening international food crisis, the World Bank is warning.

The prediction - in a report, seen by the Independent on Sunday, to be released at the World Food Summit in Rome this week - marks an extraordinary turnaround for the Bank. It has always insisted that too much, not too little, food will be harvested for the foreseeable future. But now, it admits to past "complacency", and promises "major changes" to reverse its aid policies and put more emphasis on agriculture.

This U-turn by the world's powerful development institution is likely to be the most significant result of the summit, which will be attended by 100 heads of government and senior ministers. The final declaration and plan of action - which have already been agreed, leaving the leaders little to do except make speeches - contain only one concrete commitment, and even that is greatly watered down from an undertaking made at the last great conference on the issue, 22 years ago.

At the 1974 World Food Conference, also in Rome, governments promised that "within a decade no child will go to bed hungry, no family will fear for its next day's bread, and no human being's future and capacities will be stunted by malnutrition". But the summit's final declaration will admit that more than 800 million people still do not get enough food to meet their most basic needs. Eighty-two countries - half of them in Africa - neither grow enough food for their people nor can afford to import it.

The declaration will merely commit nations to making "ongoing efforts ... with an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level" over the next two decades. But the World Bank concludes that if policies do not change, the number of hungry children will increase over that period. The world will have to double food production over the next 30 years as its population increases and as appetites grow with increasing prosperity.

"The challenge is daunting," says the report, "and the time to tackle it is now. To avoid the unthinkable Malthusian nightmare will require sustained support for research to develop new plants and technologies. But more importantly, it will require whole new ways of addressing the problem."

The World Bank admits that its own aid for agriculture and rural development has fallen by more than half in a decade, from $6bn (pounds 3.75bn) to $2.6bn in constant prices. It ascribes this, in part, to "overall complacency about the world food situation". Up to now, the Bank has held that the world would be able to grow more than enough food to meet its needs, leading to oversupply and falling prices. Hunger would persist, because the poor would not be able to buy the food they needed, but there was no prospect of an absolute shortage .

But the Bank has consistently overestimated actual harvests so far this decade. The grain crop fell 225 million tonnes short of its predictions in 1995, the third year in succession in which the world produced less food than it consumed. Stocks fell to their lowest ever level - well below the minimum needed for food security - and prices doubled. This year's harvest looks like being a near-record, averting disaster, bringing down prices and marginally increasing stocks, though the world is still highly vulnerable to another bad year.

The Bank's new fears are more long-term, however, reflecting its concern that land and water are becoming increasingly scarce. "Most new lands brought under cultivation are marginal and ecologically fragile, and cannot make up for the land being removed from cultivation each year due to urbanisation and land degradation," the report says. Washington's Worldwatch Institute calculates that the amount of cropland per person has fallen by nearly half since 1950 to just a quarter of an acre - and will drop by another third by 2030.

Already 20 countries do not have enough water to meet people's needs - it takes 1,000lb of water to produce a single pound of wheat - and water tables are falling in such crucial regions as the American Midwest, India and China. "By and large," says the report, "the cheapest, most reliable and most environmentally resilient sources of water have already been developed."

Meanwhile 90 million more people are added to the planet's population every year. And rising appetites, particularly among the increasingly prosperous peoples of East Asia, are putting even more pressure on supplies. As people become wealthier they eat more meat, often fed on grain (it takes 7lb of grain to produce 1lb of beef, 4lb for 1lb of pork). The Bank expects China to become a major importer of grain in future, which would put severe strain on the market.

To meet the crisis, the Bank plans sharp changes. In particular it intends to concentrate its efforts on small farmers in developing countries. This would have a doubly beneficial effect. First, it increases production - in relative terms, small farmers are far more productive than bigger, richer ones, and the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development has shown that they can increase their output two or three times over with simple, affordable techniques.

Second, it directly attacks poverty, because most poor people live in the Third World countryside. Poverty remains the main cause of hunger; although in theory enough food is produced each year to give everyone enough to eat, hundreds of millions of people cannot afford enough of it. So the wealthy end up with too much and the poor with too little.

The Bank is convinced that if policies change, even increased populations can be properly fed. It concludes, in a perhaps unconscious echo of the lofty - and unfulfilled - words of the 1974 conference: "If we take the necessary steps now, then we can dream of a world in 2025 in which everyone has enough to eat."

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