For nation shall rise against nation . . . and there shall be famines and troubles; these are the beginnings of sorrows. —Mark 13:8
Nothing is older to man than his struggle for food. From the time the early hunters stalked the mammoths and the first sedentary "farmers" scratched the soil to coax scrawny grain to grow, man has battled hunger. History is replete with his failures. The Bible chronicles one famine after an other; food was in such short supply in ancient Athens that visiting ships had to share their stores with the city; Romans prayed at the threshold of Olympus for food.
Every generation in medieval Europe suffered famine. The poor ate cats, dogs and the droppings of birds; some starving mothers ate their children. In the 20th century, periods of extreme hunger drove Soviet citizens to cannibalism, and as late as 1943, floods destroyed so much of Bengal's crops that deaths from starvation reached the millions.
After World War II, however, it seemed that man at long last was winning the battle against hunger. Bumper harvests in many nations, notably the U.S., created food surpluses in the West, while the development of "miracle seeds" brought the hope that the densely populated poor countries would soon attain self-sufficiency. Then, in the past two years, this optimism turned to despair as hunger and famine began ravaging hundreds of millions of the poorest citizens in at least 40 nations. Much of the ground gained in the battle for food seemed lost as the world's harvest in 1972 was roughly 3% short of meeting demands. This year's harvest has also been disappointing, and experts now question whether man can prevent widespread starvation.
The world's reserves* of grain have reached a 22-year low, equal to about 26 days' supply, compared with a 95-day supply in 1961, according to Lester Brown, a leading U.S. food expert. Low harvests and high prices have forced the traditional surplus-producing nations to curtail the amount of food that they normally give as aid to the hungry nations. For example, unless the U.S. adopts an expanded program, American aid this year will drop 50% in some categories. Sales of food are also shrinking. Argentina, Brazil, Thailand, Burma and the Common Market nations have restricted food exports. Several weeks ago, President Ford blocked the sale of some 10 million metric tons of grain to the Soviets and is permitting them to buy scarcely one-fifth of that amount. Ford feared that massive sales to the Soviet Union could inflate food prices in the U.S.
Against this gloomy backdrop, about 1,000 delegates from some 100 nations and a dozen international organizations are gathering in Rome this week for the World Food Conference, sponsored by the United Nations. It will be the first concerted global effort in history to confront the problem of hunger. For twelve days, the delegates will discuss both a program to provide food for the starving and a drive to mobilize technological and financial aid from the wealthy industrial and oil-exporting states to help the 100 poorest nations increase their own food output. Also certain to be discussed is the critical problem of curtailing births. This is urgently needed to avoid fulfilling the nightmare of Parson Thomas Malthus, the English economist who predicted nearly two centuries ago that population would outrun man's capacity to produce food.
At the opening of the conference, attention will focus on the keynote address of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, but the delegates may likely be disappointed by what he says. He will probably make few substantive commitments. On the eve of the meeting, the U.S. still did not even have a coherent food policy. It was also uncertain whether two of the world's biggest food producers and consumers—the U.S.S.R. and China—would cooperate in any international food effort, even though the urgency of the problem is unmistakable.
Nearly half a billion people are suffering from some form of hunger; 10,000 of them die of starvation each week in Africa, Asia and Latin America. There are all too familiar severe shortages of food in the sub-Saharan Sahelian countries of Chad, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Upper Volta and Niger; also in Ethiopia, northeastern Brazil, India and Bangladesh. India alone needs 8 to 10 million tons of food this year from outside sources, or else as many as 30 million people might starve.
Only slightly less serious are the situations in Honduras, Burma, Burundi, Rwanda, the Sudan and Yemen. Additionally, poor harvests threaten food supplies in Nepal, Somalia, Tanzania, Zambia and even the Philippines and Mexico. In Haiti, because of disregard for soil conservation, hundreds of thousands of subsistence farmers face starvation. Whole families are often so hungry that they do not wait for mangoes to ripen; they boil the green fruit and eat it.
Some of the broader dangers were cited recently by Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his development of wheat strains essential for the famed Green Revolution. "You cannot have political stability based on empty stomachs and poverty," he warned. "When I see food lines in developing countries, I know that those governments are under pressure and are in danger of falling." Shortages or high prices of food have already contributed to the toppling of governments in Ethiopia, Niger and Thailand.
Food riots have become commonplace in vast sections of Bangladesh and India. "In the worst-affected areas, gruel kitchens have been opened that provide a watery mess of broken wheat, fragments of pumpkin and lentils," reports TIME New Delhi Correspondent James Shepherd. "Queues of sev eral hundred emaciated people at each kitchen get what is often no more than a quarter-pound of the gruel, and sometimes that is shared among six people. In one village, a shame faced elder confessed that Hindus were violating the ban on eating cows and were consuming dead cattle and buffaloes. 'What else can we do?' he implored pathetically."
Even the beggars of Calcutta are better off than the estimated 15 million people now starving in West Bengal. "In the Kutch district of drought-stricken Gujarat," adds Shepherd, "peasants patiently wait for dogs and vultures to finish picking at the carcasses of dead cattle. The hungry gather up the bones and sell them to mills where they are made into bone dust, a kind of fertilizer."
In Bangladesh, there are barely rations to provide even gruel for the starving in Dacca's crowded refugee camps. Children are so emaciated—their flesh clinging to their brittle bones—that they almost look like deformed infants. Shortages of vitamin A, iron and iodine in India and Bangladesh are increasing the incidence—especially among the young—of goiter, blindness and cretinism.
In Africa's Sahel, the rains last June broke a six-year drought, but the area's 25 million inhabitants are not yet out of danger. Ten million people still suffer from malnutrition and will need outside aid for at least two years. "Of the estimated 4 million refugees in grim, barren camps," reports TIME Correspondent Lee Griggs, "many are young children, their bodies already so malnourished that they are easy prey to diseases ranging from measles to meningitis to pneumonia. Often they find it too difficult to eat or drink with out assistance." At least 3 million nomads—mostly Fulani and Tuareg tribesmen—have lost their entire herds of cattle, sheep, goats and even camels. Though many nomads have begun returning to their traditional grazing lands, it will take them at least five years to rebuild their stocks.
If drought struck again, the Sahel could probably count on foreign help similar to this year's 34-nation relief operation, which delivered 560,000 tons of food—one-third of it from the U.S. What is doubtful, however, is whether an emergency aid effort could rescue the tens of millions of potential starvation victims in case of disastrous harvests in India, China or another heavily populated country. There is probably not enough elasticity in the world food production and distribution systems to do that now, despite the impressive gains that agriculture has made in the past quarter-century.
Since 1950 developing countries have expanded their farm lands by 35% and their yields per acre by roughly the same percentage. Their total grain production soared 78%, compared with 64% in the industrial nations. Much of the gain came in the late 1960s through the planting of new, high-yield strains of wheat and rice. The hybrids produced more grain per plant, and their short stalks made them far less vulnerable to wind damage. The development of these seeds was hailed as the Green Revolution. Within a few years, one-third of the wheat area and one-fifth of the rice area in non-Communist Asia were planted with the miracle seeds.
Then came 1972. Bad weather started to plague so much of the world's crop land that many experts conclude that the climate itself is changing (see story page 80). Harsh winters, droughts or typhoons cut output in the Soviet Union, Argentina, Australia, the Philippines and India. Off the coast of Peru, a change in ocean currents and overfishing decimated the anchovy catch, a major source of protein for animal feed. In Southeast Asia and parts of Africa, the peanut crop—providing mainly animal feed and cooking oil—fell far below normal. All told, the world's food output dropped for the first time in 20 years, down 33 million tons, from 1,200 million tons. Merely to meet the added demand of increased population and rising living standards it should have increased by at least 24 million tons.
The weather improved in 1973, but a new set of problems threatened food output, especially in the underdeveloped countries. Fertilizer was in short supply, and its price started to climb. Then came the devastating impact of the quadrupling of the market price of petroleum by the cartel of oil-possessing nations. Higher oil prices meant added costs for the farmer: pesticides, herbicides and nitrogen-based fertilizers are derived from petroleum, while the manufacture of all fertilizer requires much energy. The world price of nitrogen fertilizer jumped from 11¢ per Ib. in 1972 to 25¢ now.
These price increases critically undermined the Green Revolution. The hybrid seeds need great amounts of water, fertilizer and pesticide. If any of the three are missing, yields plunge, often below what traditional seeds would produce. After paying for their oil imports—up from $3.7 billion in 1972 to $15 billion this year—the developing countries had little left to buy the chemicals and nutrients that their high-yield, intensive farming requires. India, for example, can afford only half the fertilizers that it needs for maximum crop yields in 1974.
This year's harvests did not improve the situation. Instead of the bumper crops needed to rebuild stocks and bring down food prices, there were disappointing harvests in the U.S., Canada, the Soviet Union and much of Asia as a result of poor weather. Meanwhile, demand keeps going up.
The main cause of the increase in food demand is, of course, the population explosion in the poorest countries. The world is growing at the phenomenal rate of at least 200,000 people a day, or 75 million a year. Unless the rate is checked, this planet's 3.9 billion inhabitants will double in number within 35 years. India's 2.2% annual growth rate will double the country's current population of 596 million by the year 2000. The apparent inability, or unwillingness, of most poor countries to restrain their profligacy has embittered many agricultural economists. Nobel Laureate Borlaug complains that the higher yields of the miracle seeds were meant to give the underdeveloped nations some time to reduce their population growth and begin upgrading their citizens' nutrition. Instead, he says, "Our efforts to buy time have been frittered away because political leaders in developing nations have refused to come to grips with the population monster."
This was painfully clear at the World Population Conference in Bucharest last August. Advocates of population control were sometimes heckled. Ridicule was heaped upon proposals from the developed countries—led by the U.S.—that called for setting up family-planning programs in underdeveloped nations and reducing the world's birth rate from 2% now to 1.7% by 1985. Latin American delegates claimed that overpopulation was a myth invented by the rich to exploit the poor. China's representative, Huang Shu-tse, declared: "The large population of the Third World is an important condition for the fight against imperialism." No wonder that one delegate from a sparsely populated nation muttered that the conference was "more demagoguery than demography."
Affluence, as well as population, eats into the world's food supply. As standards of living in the developed nations rise, their citizens not only waste food and feed millions of tons of it to pets, but they increasingly eat their food in forms that enormously burden the earth's agriculture. People in developing countries eat roughly 400 Ibs. of grain per capita annually (barely more than the pound daily they need for survival), mostly in the form of bread or gruel; but an American consumes five times that amount, mostly in the form of grain-fed beef, pork and chicken. The industrial world's way of eating is an extremely inefficient use of resources. For every pound of beef consumed, a steer has gobbled up 20 Ibs. of grain. Harvard Nutritionist Jean Mayer notes that "the same amount of food that is feeding 210 million Americans would feed 1.5 billion Chinese on an average Chinese diet."
While meat is an important source of protein, many in the industrial West eat much more meat than is nutritionally necessary. They probably do so because they like meat's taste; it is also a status symbol of a high living standard, even in Communist countries. When the Soviets suffered a crop shortfall two years ago, they did not slaughter cattle to conserve grain (as they had done in 1963), but instead they imported 28 million tons of corn, wheat and soybeans. So long as the industrial nations continue to favor meat over direct grain consumption, says Sylvan Wittwer, Michigan State University agricultural economist, "the sky is the limit for food demand."
Much of that growing demand in both industrial and developing countries has been satisfied for the past quarter-century by surpluses harvested in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and the U.S. Indeed, America "is the principal and residual supplier of grain to the world," explains Willard Cochrane, a University of Minnesota agricultural economist. "It is the country to which all countries come when they are short." This year, despite the recent restrictions on sales abroad, the U.S. will probably export about 41% of its crop—at least 82 million tons of wheat, soybeans, corn and sorghum, valued at about $17 billion. This is enough to provide about one-quarter of the world's 3.9 billion people with at least one meal daily.
Even the U.S. is no longer the bottomless cornucopia that it once seemed. By October this year, miserable weather had reduced the harvest of corn by 16% and soybeans by 19%, while demands from the developing countries continue to mount. Merely to feed one pound of grain per person daily to their added population by 1985, they may have to import at least 85 million tons of grains, compared with 25 million tons now. Their import bill, figured at current prices, would top $17 billion for food alone; they would still have big requirements for imported technology, oil and manufactured goods.
No economist sees any way that the developing nations will have enough money even for the food. Nor can they rely on aid. Though the U.S. has given away $25 billion worth of food in the past two decades, the American people will probably not support large aid programs if prices at their neighborhood supermarkets remain high. It is also uncertain whether the world has enough ships, trains and trucks to move such quantities of grain.
This grim prognosis has led to apocalyptic warnings from some of the world's top food experts. "We will see increasing troubles, not declining troubles," predicts Dr. John Knowles, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. "We will see increasing famine, pestilence, the extermination of large numbers of people. Malthus has already been proved correct." The most vulnerable to such disasters: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Sahel nations, Ethiopia, northeast Brazil, the high regions of the Andes and the poor parts of Mexico and Central America.
This deteriorating situation poses a dilemma for the wealthy, food-surfeited citizen of the developed world. He must decide whether he has a moral obligation to feed those who are starving even if the food shortage in the poorest countries could have been prevented by population control. Morals aside, out of sheer self-interest he must ponder whether the hungry half-billion will allow him to live peacefully, enjoying his wealth. He must realize that there is the chance that the impoverished might resort to war to take his wealth and food. Economist Robert Heilbroner notes that even hungry, poor states might soon get the nuclear arms with which to terrorize wealthy countries. Finally, Western man must decide whether his own sense of human dignity—which is the basis for democratic institutions—can survive as he witnesses so many people starving around the globe.
-Reserves usually refer to grains — such as wheat, corn, sorghum, rice and soy beans — not needed to meet immediate demands. They can be in storage, in transit or in the lield ready to be harvested. Most food statistics use grain as the common measure because it is the major source of calories for man and provides the basic teed tor animals.