EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 7. Feeding Everyone Well: Eradicating Hunger: A Broad Strategy

This chapter began by noting that sustaining a sufficient growth in food output to eradicate hunger will now take a superhuman effort both within agriculture and in related activities outside that sector. Soil erosion, aquifer depletion, and climate change threaten future food production. Food security may depend as much on the efforts of family planners as on farmers and as much on the decisions made in ministries of energy that shape future climate trends as on decisions made in ministries of agriculture. The difficulty in eradicating hunger is matched only by the urgency of doing so.

In countries where farm size is shrinking fast, raising land productivity deserves even greater priority than in the past. And increasingly, raising water productivity is the key to further gains in land productivity. Governments running the risk of an abrupt drop in food production as a result of aquifer depletion may be able to avoid such a situation only by simultaneously slowing population growth and raising water productivity in order to stabilize water tables.

Stabilizing population is as essential as it is difficult. If rapid population growth continues, it will lead to further fragmentation of land holdings, as well as to hydrological poverty on a scale that is now difficult to imagine. Hundreds of millions of people will not have enough water to meet their most basic needs, including food production. Chapter 10 discusses further the urgent need to stabilize world population.

With the rise in land productivity slowing, continuing rapid population growth makes eradicating rural hunger much more difficult, if not impossible. Perhaps the single most important thing India, for example, can do to enhance its future food security is to accelerate the shift to smaller families. This would enable it to move to the low-level U.N. population projection instead of the medium-level one, thereby adding only 289 million people instead of 563 million in the next 50 years.55

As the backlog of unused agricultural technology shrinks, providing enough food will increasingly depend on strengthening international agricultural research assistance. Appropriations for agricultural research are lagging far behind needs. For some farmers, the technology pipeline is running dry. More locally oriented investment in agricultural research that will help expand multiple cropping and intercropping could pay large dividends.

Raising grain yield per hectare in the two regions where the world's hungry are concentrated will not be easy. India's wheat yield, for example, has already tripled since 1960. The rise in rice yield, which went from just under 1 ton per hectare in 1965 to 1.9 tons in 1993, has slowed. Lifting land productivity in India is constrained by the country's proximity to the equator. Day length during the summer is relatively short, and since rice is typically grown during the summer monsoon season, when cloud cover is heavy, solar intensity is low.56

Now that water scarcity is becoming a constraint on efforts to expand world food production, the time has come for an all-out effort to raise water productivity. Such a campaign could be patterned on the earlier effort to raise land productivity, involving a wide range of government initiativesincluding research on raising productivity, water pricing that will reflect the value of water, government loans for farmers' attempts to raise water productivity, and the training of agricultural extension agents to help farmers in this effort.

As water scarcity translates into food scarcity, countries everywhere need to reexamine the potential for multiple cropping. This is particularly true for a country like the United States, where crop acreage limits have traditionally discouraged multiple cropping.

In India, the multiple-cropped area can be expanded by harvesting and storing water during the monsoon season so that more land can be cropped during the dry season. If agricultural extension workers are trained in water harvesting techniques, they can then work with local farmers to increase water storage. This will help raise yield per crop and also the crops produced per year. Wi

th cropland becoming scarce, efforts to protect prime farmland are needed the world over. Here, Japan is the model. It has successfully protected rice paddies even within the boundaries of the city of Tokyo, thus enabling Japan to remain self-sufficient in its staple foodrice.

Similarly with soil conservation: with erosion now taking a measurable toll on food production in so many countries, the adoption of farming practices that reduce soil erosion will pay handsome dividends. The model is the United States, which has both converted highly erodible cropland back to grassland and adopted conservation practices to reduce erosion. The conversion of erodible cropland back to grassland or to trees, coupled with the adoption of conservation tillage on 37 percent of all cropped land, reduced soil erosion from 3.1 billion tons in 1982 to 1.9 billion tons in 1997.57

Another potential for expanding food production, one that has been neglected in many industrial countries, is the feeding of crop residues to ruminants, as described earlier. This can reduce pressure on rangelands, as it has done in India and China. This potential for a second harvest from a single crop deserves to be systematically exploited worldwide.

Recognizing that malnutrition is largely the result of rural poverty, the World Bank is replacing its long-standing, crop-centered agricultural development strategies with rural development strategies that use a much broader approach. Bank planners believe that a more systemic approach to eradicating rural povertyone that embraces agriculture but that also integrates human capital development, the development of infrastructure, and social development into a strategy for rural developmentis needed to shrink the number living in poverty. One advantage of encouraging investment in the countryside in both agribusiness and other industries is that it encourages breadwinners to stay in the countryside, keeping families and communities intact. In the absence of such a strategy, rural poverty simply feeds urban poverty.58

In countries such as India, where farm size is shrinking, it becomes more difficult to raise land productivity enough to provide adequate nutrition. The challenge in these areas is to mobilize capital both through domestic savings and by attracting investment from abroad to build the factories needed to provide employment and income in rural areas. This will help rural families and communities stay together. For this the model is China, which has achieved high savings rates and attracted record amounts of foreign capital.59

Another demand-side initiative, in addition to stabilizing population growth, is for the affluent to eat further down the food chain. The best nourished people in the world are not those living low on the food chain, such as Indians who consume roughly 200 kilograms of grain per year, or those living high on the food chain, such as Americans who consume some 800 kilograms of grain per year, mostly in the form of livestock products. It is people living at an intermediate level, such as Italians, who consume 400 kilograms of grain a year. Life expectancy in Italya country with the highly touted Mediterranean diet (rich in starches and fresh fruits and vegetables and only moderate amounts of livestock products)exceeds that in both India and the United States. Even though the United States spends more on health care per person than Italy does, life expectancy in the latter is higher, apparently because of a lower consumption of livestock products. For those living high on the food chain, moving down to a more moderate level would enhance not only their health, but also the health of the planet.60

A half-century ago, no one was concerned about climate change. But if we cannot now accelerate the phaseout of fossil fuels, more extreme climate events may disrupt food production, threatening food security. Of particular concern is the rise in sea level that could inundate the river floodplains in Asia that produce much of the region's rice. The rise over the last century of 20 centimeters (8 inches) or more is already affecting some low-lying coastal regions. If sea level rises by 1 meter during this century, which is the upper level projected, it will take a heavy toll on food production, especially in Asia. Here the principal responsibility lies with the United States, a country whose carbon emissions are so great that it can single-handedly alter the earth's climate. If the United States does not assume a leadership role in phasing out fossil fuels, the global effort to stabilize climate is almost certain to fail.61

With the many countries that are facing acute land and water scarcity expecting to import growing quantities of grain, exporting countries will need to expand output to cover import needs. Over the last half-century, the growing ranks of grain-importing countries, now numbering over 100, have become dangerously dependent on the United States.62

This concentration of dependence applies to each of the big three grainswheat, rice, and corn. Just five countriesthe United States, Canada, France, Australia, and Argentinaaccount for 88 percent of the world's wheat exports. Thailand, Viet Nam, the United States, and China account for 68 percent of all rice exports. For corn, the concentration is even greater, with the United States alone accounting for 78 percent of exports and Argentina for 12 percent.63

With more extreme climate events in prospect, this dependence on a few exporting countries leaves importers vulnerable to climate change. If the United States were to experience a summer of severe heat and drought in its agricultural heartland like that of 1988, when grain production dropped below domestic consumption for the first time in history, chaos would reign in world grain markets simply because the near-record grain reserves that cushioned the huge U.S. crop shortfall that year no longer exist.64

One of the principal causes of hunger is the indifference of governments, an attitude that is often all too visible in their priorities. In some ways, India today is paying the price for its earlier indiscretions when, despite its impoverished state, it invested in a costly effort to produce nuclear weapons. After spending three times as much for military purposes as for health and family planning, India now has a nuclear arsenal capable of protecting the largest concentration of hungry people on the earth.65

Unless political leaders are willing to take the difficult steps to build an agricultural eco-economy, bland assertions that we must eradicate hunger are meaningless. If world leaders do not act decisively, the food situation could deteriorate rapidly in some developing countries. The risk for the low-income, grain-importing countries is that grain prices could rise dramatically, impoverishing more people in a shorter period of time than any event in history. Spreading food insecurity could lead to political instability on a scale that would disrupt global economic progress.

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55. United Nations, op. cit. note 2.

56. USDA, op. cit. note 1.

57. Roger Classen et al., "Success of Agri-Environmental Protection," in Agri-Environmental Policy at the Crossroads: Guideposts on a Changing Landscape, Agricultural Economic Report No. 794 (Washington, DC: ERS, USDA, January 2001), p. 3.

58. World Bank, op. cit. note 5, p. 1.

59. Farm size in India from Pachauri and Sridharan, op. cit. note 8; information on China's economy from U.S. State Department, Bureau of Economic Policy and Trade Practices, 1999 Country Reports on Economic Policy and Trade Practices: People's Republic of China (Washington, DC: March 2000).

60. Consumption levels from USDA, op. cit. note 1.

61. Inundation in Asia from World Bank, World Development Report 1999/2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 100; upper estimate of sea level rise from Tom M.L. Wigley, The Science of Climate Change: Global and U.S. Perspectives (Arlington, VA: Pew Center on Global Climate Change, June 1999).

62. USDA, Grain: World Markets and Trade (Washington, DC: September 2000), p. 19.

63. Ibid.

64. Grain production and consumption data from USDA, op. cit. note 1.

65. India's expenditures estimated from Christopher Hellman, Military Budget Fact Sheet, Center for Defense Information, www.cdi.org/issues/wme/spendersFY01.html, and from World Bank, World Development Indicators 2000 (Washington, DC: March 2000).


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute