Record Crops, but Food Shortages—Why?
EVERY shopper knows what has happened to the cost of food in recent times. In most countries prices have gone up very sharply. This reflects the basic fact that there are food shortages throughout the world.
Yet, during 1973, there were record harvests in many major food-producing countries. The American corn, wheat and soybean crops set new records. In the Soviet Union grain production rose from 168 million metric tons in 1972 to about 222 million tons in 1973, a huge increase of about 54 million tons.
Why, then, are there food shortages with resulting higher prices? Just what is happening to the world food supply?
Supply and Demand
In the field of economics, there is what is referred to as ‘the law of supply and demand.’ What this simply means is that when the demand for something rises faster than the supply of it, prices will usually rise.
That has been happening to food. There has been a tremendous surge of demand for food in the past few years. This huge increase of demand has outstripped the increase in supply. Hence, a food shortage, resulting in higher prices.
Also, while 1973 was a good crop year, 1972 was not. In fact, 1972 saw a net decline in the world’s food production. United States Department of Agriculture official Don Paarlberg said: “Never in modern times have crops been so poor in so many major producing countries at the same time. Prices rose and stocks were drawn down.” Of wheat production, The America Annual said: “The world production of wheat was 300,489,000 metric tons of wheat in 1972, down from 323,188,000 tons in 1971.”
But the demand for food did not drop in 1972. It kept increasing, relentlessly. And the higher food production of 1973 was not enough to build up reserve stocks. Thus, Paarlberg says:
“Even with this large crop, no appreciable increase in U.S. stocks of the principal grains seems likely in the near future. . . .
“This anomaly of continuing tightness in the grain markets, despite a much-improved crop, gives rise to the feeling that we may have entered a new era of short supplies, hungry people, strong prices.”
Indeed, world grain stocks are getting lower all the time. U.S. News & World Report notes that in 1961 world grain reserves were 222 million metric tons, enough to feed the world’s population then for 94 days. But by mid-1974 reserves are said to be only an estimated 105 million tons, enough to feed the world’s population for only 29 days.
With demand for food soaring everywhere, more and more nations have looked to the United States to make up their food deficits. An estimated 90 countries have ordered U.S. grain this year. As Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Carroll Brunthaver states: “The nations of the world are using more grain, they are buying more of what they use in the world market, and more of what they buy is coming from the United States. . . . The world’s food economy is running increasingly on U.S. [grain].”
But this has put immense pressure on U.S. grain reserves, so that they are practically nonexistent now. The vast food surpluses of past years are no longer the case. And because of the huge demand by so many other countries, the cost of this food has jumped. In mid-1972 a bushel of American wheat cost $1.30. In the next year and a half the price quadrupled, although it has now lowered somewhat because of good crops.
So because of increasing domestic and foreign demand, there are no more large surpluses in the United States. This has a sobering meaning for poorer countries. Stephen S. Rosenfeld, an editorial writer for the Washington Post, points out: “Its food surpluses exhausted and its priorities changing, the United States no longer can act as international good Samaritan.” An example of what this can mean is noted by Saturday Review/World:
“America’s surplus policy has changed drastically. During India’s famine of 1966-67, the United States dispatched enough wheat to feed more than 50 million people . . .
“But in 1973, during the Sahara drought, the United States found it could pack off only 156,000 tons of food, barely 1 percent of the earlier Indian shipments.”
What Experts Are Saying
The trend in the world food supply is causing deep concern everywhere. More and more observers are now saying the same thing in regard to the immediate future.
Washington Post writer Rosenfeld declares: “The world, including the United States, may be entering a period of indefinite, if not permanent, food shortages. Some experts envision hunger, malnutrition, and starvation on a scale never before contemplated.”
Director General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Dr. A. H. Boerma said last year: “The world food situation in 1973 is more difficult than at any time since the years immediately following the devastation during the Second World War.” And, because of the low reserves everywhere, Boerma warned: “There is little if any margin against the possibility of another widespread harvest failure, and the world has become dangerously dependent on current production.”
Norman Borlaug, winner of the Nobel Prize for his work in developing new types of wheat and rice (described as the “green revolution”), agrees. He said regarding 1973: “Only a handful of people are aware of just how close we were to having 50 to 60 million people die.”
A recent article in the New York Times carried this headline: “WORLD SEEN NEAR A FOOD DISASTER.” The article stated:
“Dr. John H. Knowles, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, said tonight that the world was coming close to the brink of a Malthusian disaster, with starvation and misery for millions . . .
“Among the 2-1/2 billion people living in the world’s less developed countries, Dr. Knowles said, 60 per cent [1-1/2 billion] are estimated to be malnourished, underdeveloped physically and poorly educated and 20 per cent [500 million] are believed to be starving at this moment.”
One of the main reasons for such dire forecasts has to do with world population growth. It is “exploding.” And the largest growth is taking place in the very lands where food shortages already exist.
By 1975 there will be four billion people on earth. The net increase will then be about 80 million each year (it is now about 78 million each year for a population of 3.9 billion). Such increases each year are the equivalent of the entire population of Bangladesh. India alone adds some 13 million more mouths to feed annually.
What worries experts so much is that world population is increasing faster and faster. It took thousands of years for the world to reach a population of one billion, by about 1830. But it took only 100 years for the second billion, by 1930. Then it took only 30 years for the third billion, by 1960. However, it evidently is taking only 15 years for the fourth billion—in 1975!
Thus, agriculture expert Lester Brown says: “World wheat reserves in 1973 fell to their lowest level in 20 years. . . . In 1974, even with good to very good crops anticipated in most key countries, already depleted world grain reserves are expected to decline further.”
What makes the population problem even more “explosive” is that the growing billions are demanding a better diet. As more people increase their incomes, they want to eat better. In the United States, for example, the consumption of beef per person has doubled since 1950. Spanish consumers now eat twice as much meat as they did in 1960. In nation after nation, the story is the same.
The greater demand for meat, milk products and eggs puts a strain on all food resources. A person eating grains directly may consume about 400 pounds of them a year. But meat, milk and eggs added to the diet takes much larger amounts of grain to produce. To illustrate: Each American uses up about a ton of grain a year, but eats only 150 pounds of it directly in bread, pastries and cereals. The rest is consumed by the animals that produce the meat, milk products and eggs he eats during the year.
Thus, ‘rising expectations’ use up food grains much faster than population increase alone. It is a relatively new element that previously had not been much of a factor. But now, the “exploding” world population plus its demand for a better diet constitute a dramatic, new, twofold assault on available supplies.
In recent years weather patterns have changed in many areas. Droughts in some places and floods in others, unexpectedly, have caused havoc with food production.
A severe drought has persisted in large parts of North Central Africa. In its seventh year now, the drought area embraces thousands of square miles along the southern part of the Sahara Desert. The nations most affected so far are Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Upper Volta, Niger and Chad. Also stricken are parts of Nigeria, Cameroon and Sudan.
In those areas, thousands of people have already died and millions more are now in danger. The bones of once-great herds, literally millions of animals, lie bleaching in the sun. What is happening is being called the greatest “natural” disaster in Africa’s history.
There is also a severe famine in Ethiopia. One estimate gives the death toll as being over 100,000. Entire villages reportedly have been wiped out by starvation and disease. And the famine continues to spread relentlessly.
The Soviet Union suffered adverse weather during 1972, including severe droughts. This caused a large drop in food production. The grain harvest, targeted at 195 million metric tons, came to only 168 million tons that year. This caused the Soviet Union to buy about two billion dollars’ worth of food in other countries, mainly the United States, Canada and Australia.
The effect of those Soviet purchases was felt all over the world. This huge, sudden demand on world grain supplies caused prices to soar. In the United States wheat prices skyrocketed. And world grain stocks were severely depleted.
Weather experts now say that a major drought is overdue in the United States. There has been a historical pattern of severe drought about once every twenty years. The last droughts were in the 1930’s and 1950’s, so more are expected in the 1970’s. Since the United States is the leading food exporter in the world, one bad crop there would have a calamitous effect on the food available to other nations.
In addition to “exploding” populations, rising demands for a better diet, and shifting weather patterns, there are other problems that bode ill for poorer nations. One is the rising prices of all commodities, including oil. This price rise puts a tremendous strain on the ability of poor countries to buy food, fertilizer and farm machinery.
For example, the price of oil has quadrupled in recent times. This means that the hungry nations must divert a far greater portion of their limited income to pay for necessary oil products. In the case of India, U.S. News & World Report says:
“India’s oil bill, at precrisis levels of consumption and current prices, would take 80 per cent of India’s export earnings. Oil-fed fertilizer plants are in trouble. Fertilizer-fed ‘green revolution’ and the bumper crops India has enjoyed may now be ending. If so, 1975 may be India’s year of famine.”
Recent sharp price increases are a disaster for people in poorer nations. It makes the difference between eating, although poorly, and not eating at all. This is why, as the New York Times put it, World Bank president Robert McNamara has been “asserting with almost missionary zeal that the rich nations have not yet calculated the economic and human consequences of quadrupled oil prices or begun to grapple with the food and fertilizer shortages he foresees. . . . One or two more seasons of bad weather, he observes, and the human family will be enduring unimaginable disasters.”
Furthermore, the land now used for planting crops is diminishing as population increases. For instance, in 1944 there were 366 million acres planted in 16 major crops in the United States. But in 1974 that had dropped to 278 million acres. Why the huge decrease? The New York Times says:
“The decline in planted acreage since 1944, despite sharply higher farm prices, reflects steady conversion of croplands to housing, shopping centers, highways, airports and other nonagricultural uses, as well as livestock raising.”
Can the world’s oceans be looked to for more food in the form of fish products? That is not likely, say authorities. The world’s vastly expanded fishing fleets are taking so much fish from the oceans that the fish are barely able to reproduce their number. Some experts even say that “overfishing” is already a fact, resulting in less fish for the future.
All these reasons make the world food picture bleak indeed. Human society, as presently constructed, is simply unable to feed earth’s billions properly. Even those experts who had been optimistic about this matter a few years ago now feel that mass starvation seems inevitable. That is why an American government official predicted: “The food crisis of 1974 will look like a Sunday school picnic compared with the food crisis of 1975-1976.”
[Map on page 4]
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CENTRAL AFRICAN REP.
TERR. OF AFARS AND ISSAS
The area shown in color represents the zone of severe drought that has spread in this part of Africa in recent years
[Picture on page 5]
KEY FACTORS IN WORLD FOOD SHORTAGE
RISING DEMAND FOR A BETTER DIET
SHIFTING WEATHER PATTERNS
LESS LAND USED FOR FARMING
HIGH COST OF PRODUCING FOOD