Paul R. Ehrlich & Anne H. Ehrlich, The Population Explosion, 1990.

Food: The Ultimate Resource

To ecologists who study animals, food and population often seem like two sides of the same coin. If too many animals are devouring it, the food supply declines; too little food, and the supply of animals declines. When thinking about population problems, ecologists quite properly focus much of their attention on food. The amount of food available restrains the size of any animal population, unless space, disease, predators, or some other factor sets lower limits. Homo sapiens is no exception to that rule, and at the moment it seems likely that food will be our limiting resource.

Compassionate people, especially those who are offended by the notion that there may be too many people, often subscribe to a pernicious fallacy about the human food supply. They are convinced that there is no "population problem," only a problem of maldistribution of food.1 If only food production were better attuned to the nutritional needs of people and shared more equally, they say, no one would go hungry.

The fallacy is seductive, because in the short term and in a limited sense this is correct. In Chapter 1 we mentioned a recent study showing that the 1985 food supply could provide an adequate basic diet, primarily vegetarian, to about 6 billion people.2 The same food supply could provide a modestly improved diet, with about 15 percent of its calories from animal products (about what people in South America have available today), to 4 billion people. Some 1.3 billion people in the present population would get nothing at all to eat if that level of nutrition were given to the rest. A "full-but-healthy" diet, with approximately 35 percent of its calories from animal sources, could be fed to roughly 2.5 billion people, less than half the 1990 population.

With the present unequal distribution of food, a billion or so people are, if anything, too well fed. Most of them, of course, are in rich countries. About a third of the world's grain harvest is fed to livestock so that the diets of the well-to-do can be enriched with meat, eggs, and dairy products. Perhaps 3 billion other people get enough to eat, although meat may not often grace their dinner tables.

Nearly a billion of the world's poorest people, mostly in poor countries, are hungry.3 An estimated 950 million people were getting deficient diets in 1988 -- roughly one out of three people living in developing nations outside China. About two out of five of those (almost 400 million people) were so undernourished that their health was threatened or their growth was stunted.

The great majority of the hungriest, of course, are infants and small children, whose parents are themselves living on the edge of survival. This daily food deprivation is a major factor behind the high infant mortalities in poor countries. One in ten babies born in these countries will not make it to its first birthday; two of the surviving nine can look forward to a lifetime of chronic hunger.

If the excess food of the rich were somehow made available to the poor, the poor would be better fed; but there wouldn't be much left to accommodate a population increase. Of course, food production worldwide has continued to increase somewhat faster than the population for the last four decades, and many agricultural experts expect that yearly rise to keep on materializing -- despite setbacks increasingly encountered in the 1970s and 1980s.

What about the assertion of the Catholic bishops, cited earlier, that "theoretically" enough food could be produced to feed 40 billion people? The original estimate on which the bishops based their statement was made two decades ago and has long since been discredited. It was reached by assuming that all more or less flat land in the world could be farmed and would be as productive as the land on an experimental farm in Iowa. This condition can't even be met by the rest of Iowa!

In reality, all signs point in the opposite direction.4 In Africa south of the Sahara, food production has fallen far behind population growth. Grain production per person has fallen by about 20 percent since 1970, and the average diet there was already woefully inadequate then. Rising imports of food have compensated in part for the shortfalls, but most of these very poor nations cannot afford to import all that is needed. The amount of food set aside for emergency donations is a pittance compared to the need in Africa alone.

Since 1981, per-capita food production has also been lagging in Latin America, where population growth rates are not too far below those in Africa. In short, population growth is already outstripping food production in two major regions of the world, in which live nearly a billion people. Could this alarming trend soon spread to encompass the entire globe?>

Between 1950 and 1984, there was an unprecedented upward trend in global grain production, sufficient to stay ahead of population increase (in spite of the reverse trend in Africa south of the Sahara after 1970). There were only slight fluctuations, and until 1972 no actual declines in world production from one year to the next (local or regional declines were offset by bumper crops elsewhere). Before 1987, two consecutive years of substantial global declines were unheard of. Then, after a record grain harvest in 1986, absolute grain production worldwide dropped by 5 percent in 1987 and fell again in 1988 another 5 percent back to the level of the early 1980s. Meanwhile the population grew by 3.6 percent in those two years.

Part of the 1987 decline was "planned," as a result of conservation measures in the United States and as a strategy to reduce an accumulated grain glut, and part was due to a monsoon failure in India.5 But the 1988 drop was the unexpected result of severe drought and crop failure in such supposedly secure granaries as the United States and Canada, as well as the Soviet Union and China. That took care of the grain glut.

Preliminary 1989 estimates indicate a return of production to the 1986 level, but a continuing drawdown of food reserves. It is especially ominous that population growth makes it difficult to replenish stocks even in "good" years. Unlike the gradual slippage of food production behind population growth in some less-developed regions over decades, the 1988 event signaled a different kind of vulnerability -- one all but forgotten in the post-World War II era of "dependable" global food-production increases: agricultural success still requires favorable weather and a stable climate.

The tricks of modern agriculture (especially the adoption of high-yielding crop strains in Asia and parts of Latin America, known as the Green Revolution) that have more or less steadily resulted in ever bigger harvests for four or five decades may now be playing out for developed nations and are proving to be less readily transferred to poor countries than was hoped. They undeniably achieve substantial short-term gains, but possibly for too high a price -- and the bill is coming due, in terms of depleted soils, salted fields, drained aquifers, and the like.

In the rest of this chapter, we summarize the current food situation in various regions of the world, focusing first on the developing nations, where the population-food ratio seems to be worsening.


Grain production in Asia continues to increase faster than the population, partly because population growth rates in many Asian countries are lower than in other developing regions and partly because of greater success with Green Revolution technologies. Even so, signs that food production may fall behind population growth have begun to appear in some of the world's most populous nations.

China's grain production peaked in 1984 at a level roughly three times that of 1950; since then, production has fallen. After the drought-reduced 1988 harvest, China had to import about 15 million tons, some 5 percent of its domestic grain consumption that year.6 In part, the decline in grain production reflects improvements in diets, as some land formerly planted in grain now produces a variety of other foods.

The development of nonagricultural sectors of China's economy, however, is also partly responsible for reduced grain harvests. Industry is diverting water from agriculture, and homes and factories are being built on scarce arable land. Each year some 4,000 square miles of farmland are taken out of production, three quarters of it for construction.7 This is an alarming trend for a nation that has 7 percent of Earth's farmland but is trying to feed 21 percent of the human population.

Although China has been very successful in reducing its birthrate, housing and employment still must be provided for about 15 million more people each.year. Unless the trend in land conversion can be reversed and steady growth in grain production restored, China will become a major food importer by the mid-1990s -- if sufficient foreign exchange can be earned through industrial exports and if enough grain is available for sale on the world market. The latter, of course, will depend on production elsewhere.

India, the nation that in the next century may challenge China as the most populous on Earth, made dramatic increases in wheat production between 1965 and 1983, thanks to its Green Revolution. Since 1983, India's rising grain production has lost momentum, for reasons that aren't hard to find. About 40 percent of India's land is degraded from overuse.8 Soil erosion is rampant, with an estimated annual loss of 6 billion tons of topsoil -- the equivalent of 8,000 square miles of arable land (an area the size of Massachusetts) disappearing from India each year.9

In addition, 40,000 square miles of the nation's irrigated land is suffering from waterlogging and salinization, reducing its average productivity by about a fifth. And water levels in aquifers are dropping rapidly in some areas.10 In the south in Tamil Nadu, water tables fell 80 to 100 feet between 1975 and 1985, and overdrafts of aquifers through tube wells may threaten India's breadbasket in Haryana and the Punjab.11 The reduced water-holding capacity of eroded land leads to more runoff and less recharge of aquifers. On the positive side, considerable potential remains for expanding irrigated land on the plain of the Ganges River.

The recharge of aquifers now being drained is also hindered by deforestation, which also leads to accelerated soil loss and more rapid runoff in watersheds. Between 1960 and 1980, over 16,000 square miles of the Indian subcontinent's forests (twice the area of Massachusetts) were destroyed, leaving less than 15 percent of the land forest-covered -- an area about the size of California. Rates of destruction have been accelerating, though, and if current ones continue, those forests will effectively be gone by early in the next century.12 Once-dependable springs in the increasingly denuded mountains are becoming seasonal or drying up entirely. Dust blown from the Rajasthan desert is loading the atmosphere, possibly adding to regional climate change.

That the entire subcontinent is being deforested is of great concern to Indians. As environmentalist Mohan Dharia said in a report to the Indian government: "At the rate we are destroying our forests we will not have to wait for long to see India becoming the biggest desert in the world."13 Roughly four fifths of India's land area is now subject to repeated droughts, often on a two- to five-year time scale.14

India suffered greatly from hunger in the early 1970s. Following the Soviet Union's decision to buy millions of tons of grain on the world market after a disastrous crop failure in 1972, India could not buy enough to make up for its own poor harvest caused by inadequate monsoon rains. In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Orissa, the nation's poorest states, there were over 800,000 hunger-related deaths above the chronic level of child mortality.15 Since then, observers who don't understand that India has increased grain production by "mining" its soils and underground water have been impressed by that nation's improved food security. But in fact, short-term security has been bought by risking medium-term disaster.

In 1987, environmental analyst R. N. Roy of the Catalyst Group in Madras described the outlook succinctly: "With two- thirds of India's land threatened by erosion, water shortages and salinity, and with the added threat of pollution and increasing urban industrial demand, the country appears to be facing a catastrophic problem in the 1990s, if not earlier."16 And don't forget: with an annual population growth rate of 2.2 percent, India must somehow feed an additional 16 million people each year.

India is certainly not the only nation in trouble on the Indian subcontinent. The region is one of the two poorest in the world (Africa south of the Sahara being the other). Its population of more than a billion is also one of the most underfed, with about half of the people lacking sufficient food to carry on an active working life and one in five so deprived as to threaten health and (in children) growth. The majority of the world's hungry "absolute poor" live in South Asia.17

Bangladesh is much poorer than India, even more crowded, and more vulnerable, and has a population one-seventh as large but growing one-third faster. In the 1970s, Bangladesh suffered two sharp rises in death rates due to starvation, and more of the same can be expected in the decades to come. Every year, there are 3 million more hungry mouths in Bangladesh.

Pakistan, the third major nation in the Indian subcontinent, is not significantly better off than its neighbors. With a land area six times that of Bangladesh and about the same number of people, Pakistan's greatest agricultural problem is lack of water. More than three fourths of its arable land is irrigated, with all the difficulties that implies. Much formerly irrigated land has gone out of production as salts have accumulated in the soil. Lester Brown has noted "glistening white expanses of salt-covered cropland . . . now abandoned" seen from an airplane flying over Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries.18 Population growth in Pakistan is also on a par with that of Bangladesh, and per-capita grain production has dropped significantly in the 1980s.

Western Asia, more familiarly known as the Middle East, has seen remarkably large increases in grain production in recent years, largely as a result of agricultural inputs purchased by oil proceeds. Through extensive irrigation, fertilizers, and planting of high-yield grain varieties, production has leaped forward. But in a region of scant rainfall and restricted irrigation opportunities, there are clearly limits to this expansion -- even with unlimited budgets. The current production glut of oil, with the low prices it commands, should have underlined the problem. Some Middle Eastern nations are modernizing rapidly, while others seem to be retreating full tilt to the seventh century; but all have very high population growth rates. The oil-producing nations now can afford to drill for water everywhere and import as much food as they wish, but problems will reappear if the quantities of food available for purchase diminish -- or the oil runs out.

Southeast Asia, once a rich food-exporting region, has suffered destruction (including ecological destruction) as a result of the Vietnam War. Subsequent political turmoil in Kampuchea (Cambodia) has kept that nation from resuming its former role as an Asian breadbasket. Only Thailand has continued to export rice and maize; and that nation, despite a relatively successful family-planning effort, is beginning to have trouble, probably largely because of increasing deforestation in the northern part of the country.

The story in the Southeast Asian giant, Indonesia, is not much cheerier. The nation had become self-sufficient in rice and had large stored reserves in 1984.19 Since then production has not kept up with population growth, partly because of diminishing returns to fertilizer application.20 Indonesia already has 185 million people, and the population is projected to increase by over 100 million by 2020, despite a birthrate considerably lower than that of India or Bangladesh. If that projection, which assumes a further decline in the birthrate, is realized, in 2020 Indonesia will have a population density of almost 400 people per square mile. That is about the density of Switzerland or New York State -- and more than five times that of the United States as a whole.

Some two thirds of those people are now crammed onto the island of Java, which has only about 7 percent of the nation's land area. Java therefore is one of the world's most densely populated areas (now about 2,400 per square mile, more crowded than Bangladesh). In response to that crowding, Indonesia launched an ambitious program of transplanting people from Java to the relatively sparsely occupied outer islands. Between 1985 and 2005, some 65 million people, somewhat more than the projected population growth during the period, were to be sent to agricultural settlements on Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi, and Irian Jaya.

But the program is failing; unlike the rich volcanic soils of Java, the rainforest soils on the outer islands are largely unsuitable for agriculture. Transported people often find themselves unable to make a living; many soon make their way back to Java. The program also has been enormously destructive ecologically, resulting in heavy deforestation, soil erosion, and stream siltation. And one of the most unfortunate side effects has been to divert the Indonesian government's attention away from the critical need for population control.21

The Philippines, with a population of 65 million, has enough land theoretically to feed twice that number of people under intensive irrigation for paddy rice. But the water to supply the irrigation for those paddies is disappearing, because the islands are being rapidly deforested -- interfering with a crucial ecosystem service supplied by forest ecosystems: assurance of steady, dependable flows of water in streams. Only two thirds of the Philippines' original forest cover remains, and a third of that is severely degraded. Much of the denuded land is in critical watershed areas, and the watershed areas will suffer further as the rape of the forests continues. Lowland agriculture is being subjected to floods, siltation of irrigation canals, and dry-season water shortages, all related to deforestation, and the damage is bound to increase.22

Furthermore, the hybrid rice varieties that form the basis of the Philippines' Green Revolution have proven vulnerable to pests, which has led to an escalated use of pesticides. For instance, between 1966 and 1979 the amount spent on insecticides climbed from 2 to 90 pesos per hectare. Not only does such an increase in chemical control represent a heavy financial burden on a poor nation, it also creates nasty environmental problems. One of the most serious consequences in the Philippines, as elsewhere in Asia, is the poisoning of fishes that are raised in farm ponds and flooded rice paddies -- denying some of the poorest people a key source of protein for their diets.23

At its current growth rate, the population will double in twenty-five years. Agricultural production in the Philippines is not likely to double in the foreseeable future; indeed, it may even decline. Conservative Catholic,factions, whose views are shared by President Corazon Aquino, have effectively gutted the once-active family-planning program in the Philippines. This action has set the Philippines on a sure road to.famine unless that nation somehow finds the means to buy food in the future and other nations have it to sell. In 1990, there were almost 2 million more Filipino mouths to feed than in 1989.

The industrial nations of the Far East -- Japan, Korea, and Taiwan -- have had declining grain harvests for over a decade. Industrialization itself is partly responsible. In these already crowded nations, industrialization pulls both land and labor out of agriculture. So far, the losses have been eased by reduce.^ population growth and compensated by a rising ability to pay for imported food. All three countries can attribute much of their industrial success to having first developed and maintained sound agricultural sectors -- a lesson unfortunately too seldom pointed out.

The previous pages have portrayed a troubled continent. Still, Asia is really the bright spot in the food picture among developing regions; in most countries, increases in food production have so far kept ahead of population growth. The portents for the future, however, are much less cheery.


The food situation in Latin America, especially in the tropical regions, is quite different from that in Asia. Recent trends have not been encouraging, yet the outlook could be much brighter if available resources were used more rationally. It should be remembered also that the average nutritional level of Latin Americans is considerably better than that of Asians, although great variation exists in both regions. Brazil, the largest nation in the region, illustrates the problems -- and the variations -- all too well.

At first glance, it is hard to imagine that a nation with three times the agricultural area of China and less than one seventh of its population could have difficulty feeding its people adequately.24 But the combination of an inequitable social system (which also generates faulty government policies) and the intrinsic problems of tropical agriculture has produced exactly that situation.

Brazil's problems are rooted in history. The colonial economy was based on plantations growing crops for export.25 Rich people ran the plantations; poor people and slaves worked on them. Producing food for the poor or slaves was never a high priority -- just as food for the masses isn't today. Indeed, a lack of adequate diets for a major portion of the population has plagued Brazil since the seventeenth century. A disorganized economy and chronic shortages allowed the development of a class of atravessadores, dishonest middlemen, who managed to keep food prices low for farmers and high for consumers, and fattened themselves on the difference.

Despite wide recognition of the problem for a long time, and sporadic attempts at reform, curing it has proven extremely difficult. Labor unions are weak, which keeps both wages and thus effective demand for food low.26 This situation has been exacerbated recently by industrialization of the agricultural system for growing crops for export at the expense of home consumption, especially in the subtropical and temperate south.

Between 1967 and 1979, the percentage of farmland dedicated to growing food for Brazilian consumption dropped from 63 to 55, as agriculture became a major source of foreign exchange to pay for imports and help to pay off the huge foreign debt. Industrial agriculture takes place on large holdings and is energy-intensive, not labor-intensive. Small farmers have been driven off their land, many into the cities. There they have swollen the urban labor pool and helped keep wages and food demand low. Success in producing export crops -- soybeans, coffee, oranges, sugarcane, cacao (cocoa), and cotton -- has resulted in production of less food for Brazilians. Indeed, as production of export crops has risen, so has importation of staples to feed the poor.

The running of Brazil's agricultural system for the financial benefit of a few rather than the feeding of the many is not the only agricultural problem the nation faces. Brazil has "modernized" its agriculture, using techniques developed for temperate climates. The result, especially when these methods are attempted in the tropics, often is an unsustainable system.

For example, plowing benefits the soil in temperate regions by raising its temperature in the spring and increasing the activity of beneficial soil organisms, but has the opposite effect in the tropics and subtropics. Rather, the soil is heated enough to kill bacteria, earthworms, insects, and mites that are essential for maintaining soil fertility. Furthermore, heavy mechanical working of the soil and planting in neat rows lead to serious erosion problems in the wake of tropical cloudbursts.

Soil loss in Brazilian soybean-growing regions has been estimated at about 100 tons per hectare per year, while soil conservationists believe that the "limits of tolerance" (not the replacement rate) are in the vicinity of 15 tons at most. The entire state of Parana (which is in temperate southern Brazil) is eroding away at a rate of almost a half inch a year -- soil that would take some four hundred years to regenerate.

Brazilian farmers have attempted to compensate for the horrendous erosion rate by escalating their fertilizer applications. These were increased fivefold between 1966 and 1977, while yields (production per hectare) increased only 5-15 percent. Fertilizers can partially compensate for and mask nutrient losses from erosion for a while, but sooner or later the piper must be paid, and yields will tumble. In short, "modernization" of agriculture in Brazil is a stark case of living on capital -- using up a key renewable resource (topsoil) so fast as to make it nonrenewable.

Similarly, the adoption of temperate-zone chemical-control systems for pests has led to worsening pest problems in Brazil. Tropical and subtropical agricultural systems do not benefit from the natural "pest control" of a winter season; instead, tropical agricultural ecosystems must depend on the natural pest controls derived from the complexity of natural tropical ecosystems. Birds, predatory insects, fungi, and other enemies of crop pests normally help limit pest outbreaks, but these natural controls are seriously disrupted by routine pesticide applications.

Further problems in Brazil have been caused by the use of much potentially productive cropland as pasture for cattle -- a result in part of Brazil's inequitable land-ownership patterns and outdated notions of appropriate land use. This pattern has been especially destructive when extended to the Amazon, where rainforest soils are often thin and unsuited to permanent agriculture or even pasture. Stripped of forest, the soil is eroded rapidly, and nutrients are leached by heavy tropical downpours.

In Brazil, moreover, the Amazonian "ranchers" include the Volkswagen and Ford companies, which have established gigantic ranches of low productivity that soon turn into wasteland. These enterprises have been subsidized by the Brazilian people as a whole through tax exemptions granted for the purpose of "opening" the Amazon frontier. Unfortunately, while using productive land for pasture in the subtropical and temperate parts of the country is wasteful (and morally dubious when millions of Brazilians are hungry and jobless), the application of such a policy to the rainforest region is a travesty, denying present and future generations any benefit from the forest's resources.27

In short, Brazil's agriculture is being pushed toward social and ecological failure, in part to satisfy the demand for export crops generated in the overpopulated developed world. In the absence of a drastic overhaul of its agricultural system, the country has scant prospect of being able to maintain its export potential in the long run, or to provide adequate diets for a population "scheduled" to double in thirty-five years or so. Each year, almost 3 million more Brazilians must be carried by the staggering food-supply system.

The reasons for a 10 percent decline in per-capita food production in Latin America since 1981 vary among the different nations, but some factors are common to many. Maldistribution of land ownership, irrational land-use patterns, ecological degradation, the debt crisis (which prevents capital from flowing into agricultural sectors), and rapid population growth (over 2 percent per year on average for Latin America) all contribute to the failure of agricultural production to keep up.

In the tropical Andes, particularly in present-day Peru and Ecuador, deforestation of the mountain ranges above the fertile valleys was well under way before the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. What the Incas had begun the Spanish colonial authorities continued, and today much of the land's productive capacity has eroded away with the soil. Stunted growth from malnutrition is obvious in the native Andeans, who live in what should be a healthy environment (compared with the disease-ridden lowland forests).

Argentina and Chile seem to have everything going for them: fertile lands, a temperate climate, and moderate population growth (currently about 1.5 percent per year). But corrupt or repressive politics and stratified societies with skewed landholding patterns have tripped them up. Nonetheless, Argentina remains the sole significant net grain exporter in Latin America.

Central America has suffered from extensive deforestation, much of it to create short-lived cattle ranches for exporting "cheap" beef for the North American fast-food market. As meat exports rose in the 1960s and 1970s, domestic meat consumption fell in several countries. For instance, in Costa Rica in those two decades, beef production quadrupled, but per-capita consumption declined by more than 40 percent (to a mere 35 pounds a year, barely one third of U.S. consumption). In recent years, political turmoil in El Salvador and Guatemala has prevented the needed land reform that might put domestic food production on a more secure footing, while Nicaragua's progress has been disrupted by U.S. intervention.

Mexico was the Green Revolution's first success story and a showcase. In the 1950s, Mexico went from being an increasing wheat importer to an exporter as yields multiplied. Grain production increased fourfold by the mid-1980s.28 By the 1980s, Mexico's population growth, among the most rapid in the hemisphere, had overwhelmed those dazzling food-production increases, despite some progress in reducing the birthrate by a late-starting family-planning program.

Recently, Mexico's problems have been compounded by its crippling foreign debt (largely a result of the oil-price bust in the 1980s), loss of 10 percent of its grain-producing farmland to other uses, an unfinished land-reform program, and chronic corruption. Mexico's agricultural system is probably sounder than many in Latin America, but its productive land is limited (the northern part of the country is largely desert), and the population is still growing fast; there are over 2 million more Mexicans to feed each year.29

It should be emphasized that, unlike most of Asia, Latin America is not yet pushing against physical or biological limits of agricultural production under available technology. The problems listed above are part of a generally inefficient use of resources, encouraged to a significant degree by demand from the overpopulated rich countries. Unfortunately, many trends (especially the destruction of rain forests and widespread unchecked soil erosion) are undermining the potential for future food production.30 And population growth could quickly close the gap between food needs and the capacity to produce it.


Africa is the world's nutritional "basket case." While deaths related to inadequate diets occur in poor nations everywhere, only in Africa have there been widespread famines in the last two decades. In the 1980s, more than 5 million infants -- one of every five or six children born -- have died each year in Africa from causes related to hunger.31

Periodically, the severity of African famines has been brought home to citizens of the rich nations through television programs showing starving children in hideous refugee camps. The coverage usually brings outpourings of empathy and donations, often generated with the help of celebrities and rock-music groups. Unfortunately, the acute situations publicized represent the iceberg tip of a continentwide tragedy: chronic hunger, spreading and intensifying year by year.

In the short term, donated food often does not reach the people it was meant for. In the Ethiopian famines of the mid-1980s, both sides in a ferocious civil war often used donated food as a weapon, preventing it from reaching starving people in territory controlled by "the other side." Similar tactics played a large role in the 1988 famine in Sudan, where some 100,000 perished.

Even in peacetime, food aid doesn't always reach its intended recipients. For food donations to reach the neediest famine victims, many things have to work right. Port facilities must be adequate, warehousing must be sufficient to store the food safely until it can be distributed, trucks and railroads capable of moving the food to the hinterland must be in working condition (along with their roads and railbeds). At the end of the line, there often must be four-wheel-drive vehicles available to take food to the more remote parts of the countryside where hunger may be most acute. The entire system must function smoothly in a time of stress, often in the face of massive corruption in the distribution system.

The magnitude of the problems that can plague a relief effort are exemplified by the Ethiopian situation in the mid-1980s. There were lots of television pictures of Hercules transports flying in much-needed food. Unfortunately, however, a Hercules can carry only 21 tons of grain, whereas Ethiopia needed 1.5 million tons.32 Such mountains of grain can be carried only on ships, which may take months to reach Ethiopia from donor countries. Furthermore, at maximum capacity, Ethiopia's ports can handle only 3,500 tons per day; so even if the ships were perfectly lined up so that they never had to wait for space, and port facilities were never broken down or left idle, it would take fourteen months to unload that much grain. Meanwhile about 1.5 million Ethiopians are added each year to the ranks of those to be fed.

The barriers to distributing food aid to starving refugees only highlight problems of resource distribution and development that are endemic in Africa and other poor regions. While the starving victims of war and revolution have captured global attention, several hundred million victims of chronic rather than acute food shortages continue to be overlooked, and inefficient and impoverished agricultural systems fall ever farther behind in the race to stay ahead of population growth.

Since 1968, food production per person in Africa south of the Sahara has declined by some 20 percent. Tropical African nations are too poor and debt-burdened to make up all of the deficit with imports, and far too little food has been made available for donation. The result has been a continuous erosion of the nutritional status of Africans and in some areas a stagnation of progress in, among other things, reducing infant mortalities -- a necessary prerequisite to reducing birthrates.

One example is Kenya, a country in some ways fortunate: it has a reasonably stable government, a well-established and remunerative tourist industry, and one of the better agricultural systems on the continent. Yet Kenya can't feed its people now, and population growth is so fast that, if it continues, there will be twice as many Kenyans in fewer than twenty years. Per-capita water supplies in that semiarid nation will be reduced by half soon after the turn of the century, and, despite a model soil-conservation program, erosion is unlikely to be brought under control before Kenya's population has doubled.33 By then, it may be too late for a nation with limited arable land and so many people that a major preoccupation of men even today is squabbling over ever tinier, subdivided landholdings while the women do most of the farm and domestic work. Every year, Kenya must find food for a million more people.

Overall, the numbers for tropical Africa are grim. An estimated 44 percent of the region's people were inadequately fed in 1980, one in every four dangerously so.34 Since 1980, the situation has become, if anything, worse, as per-capita food production has continued to slip and populations have continued to expand by an average of 3 percent per year.

Nigeria's population, 115 million in 1989, is projected to reach 160 million in 2000, some 270 million in 2020, and over 530 million before growth ceases sometime after 2050. This is as many people as lived in all of Africa in 1984. We don't take such projections very seriously, since they ignore nearly certain rises in death rates resulting from the manifold consequences of overpopulation.

Crop yields in Nigeria in the 1980s were lower than they had been thirty years earlier, in part because of soil erosion.35 Corruption in government, mismanagement of resources (including revenues from oil), and failure to attend to agriculture have also contributed to Nigeria's problems. Imagine what they will be like if the Nigerian population doubles and redoubles in two generations, as projected!

The Sahel, a swath across Africa along the southern fringe of the Sahara cutting through a dozen countries, has been plagued with recurrent drought for nearly twenty years. The resultant, almost continuous famine has ceased to be "news" for the media, but is a prime example of the consequences of overpopulation. Overgrazing and overcultivation of the region's fragile lands have led to severe desertification. The effects of a naturally occurring drought were greatly intensified because so little vegetation remained to recycle the scant rainfall. Moreover, the denuded landscape's reflectivity had changed, leading to reduced cloud formation and thus still less rain.36 Even with the return of more normal rains in the late 1980s, the rapidly growing Sahel populations remained dependent on imported food to meet their needs.37

North of the Sahara, the picture is not much better. The five nations of Africa's northern coast now import half their grain. Oil revenues in some cases have helped to finance the imports, and nutritional levels have improved during the 1980s. But the region's population is growing at an average annual rate of 2.8 percent, which does not bode well for future food self-sufficiency in those desert lands.38

Temperate South Africa is the continent's breadbasket -- to the extent that there is one. South Africa sells grain to its neighbors, and sustained some of them when drought afflicted the southern part of the continent earlier in the decade. But South Africa's black and "colored" populations are increasing rapidly (a further source of tension between the races), and the country's agricultural resources are already under stress.39 Given the disastrous governmental policies and uncertain future of the country, we can't hold out much hope for the long-term wise use of agricultural resources.

In sum, there are few nutritional bright spots in the Dark Continent.


We have until now concentrated on the food situation in the developing world, because that is where the biggest problems are -- problems that are tightly tied to population growth. But in the modern world, food production is less and less matched to the distribution of people. Before World War II, international food trade was modest compared to the total amount produced. And the only region that imported substantial amounts of grain was Europe. Then, Asia, Latin America, and Africa were all net food-exporting regions, along with North America. Today the situation has almost completely reversed. As developing nations have lost ground in food production, they have become increasingly dependent on the world grain market to supply their needs.

Some industrialized nations are also food-deficit nations, heavily dependent on imports to feed their populations. Japan is an outstanding example, importing over two thirds of its grain. The Soviet Union and several Eastern European nations in recent years also have imported substantial portions of their grain supplies. But all these countries can comparatively easily afford the imports, and their populations are approaching ZPG. Hunger in these nations, when it occurs, is due to maldistribution, misallocation of resources (as in the USSR), and callousness about the plight of the poor. Many citizens of rich nations eat too much food for good health and waste too much of it.

Only a handful of nations today are reliable food exporters, nearly all of them developed nations: the United States, Canada, the European Common Market, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Thailand. Americans, fond of viewing their country as a leading industrial power, are largely unaware that it also is by far the world's leading grain exporter and is economically dependent on those exports to keep its balance of trade from deteriorating even further. Three fourths of the world's grain shipments are from the North American granary; over a hundred nations around the world depend at some level on those resources.40 This goes far to explain why the 1988 drought that hit the North American grain belt was a matter for global concern.


Now we turn to another important component of the world food system -- fisheries. Two decades ago, it was fashionable among population optimists to say that the hungry millions could be fed by the boundless riches of the sea. But the boundless riches of the seas have been measured and the bounds found to be only too real.

In 1970 Peru harvested almost 13 million tons41 of anchovetas, which provided a large amount of cheap protein for animal feed, mainly to rich nations. In 1972, the Peruvian anchoveta fishery collapsed. A combination of overfishing and an El Nino, the warming of the normally cool waters of the Humboldt Current, caused a drop of the fishery's harvest to just over 2 million tons in 1973.42 This launched a decade in which increases in global commercial-fishery harvests lagged behind world population growth, with catches remaining below 70 million tons per year. Then, in the mid-1980s, there was a sharp upturn to about 84 million tons of fishes extracted from the oceans, plus another 7 million tons provided by fish-farming in 1986. The increase was due largely to the recovery, after almost two decades, of the Peruvian anchoveta fishery, combined with an expansion of the take of pollack, a codlike fish, in the northeastern Pacific.

Cheer at this news has to be tempered by the realization that many fish stocks are already overfished.43 An ecologist in Alaska recently told us that the pollack fishery in the Bering Sea was being "strip-mined" and was expected to decline soon.44

Extraction of fishes from the oceans overall is approaching the maximum sustainable yield, thought to be in the vicinity of 100 million tons of conventional fishes (that is, not including such potential seafood sources as octopus and antarctic krill). Although 100 million tons of seafood seems small when contrasted with a global grain harvest some seventeen times bigger, fishes supply a critical protein supplement to many people who otherwise would have much less nutritious diets. Seafood is thus a vital element in the world food picture.45

If the approximately 24 million tons of fish caught each year in sports and subsistence fishing, in addition to the commercial fisheries, are counted, the 100-million-ton estimate has been exceeded. Suppose, though, that estimate were low, and the maximum sustainable yield were actually 150 million tons. Suppose also that a miracle happened, and each stock was carefully harvested so as to maintain its maximum sustainable yield. Even under those circumstances, per-capita yields would fall again within a few decades as population growth overwhelmed those miracles.

Unfortunately, instead of miracles, fisheries are facing disasters. Demand for fish is climbing steadily, encouraging the destructive harvesting of stocks. Long before eastern-Pacific pollack became the fishermen's target, many stocks in the North Atlantic were seriously depleted; competition for the dwindling catches even led to a shooting war between the United Kingdom and Iceland during the 1970s.46 The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recently estimated that, of 280 fisheries it monitors, only 25 could be considered under-exploited or moderately exploited. The only underexploited fishing regions left are in the Southern Hemisphere.47

Meanwhile, ocean pollution is rising steadily, doubtless reducing the maximum sustainable yields for some stocks and contaminating many harvested fishes. Coastal waters are not only the sites of greatest marine pollution (being adjacent to the sources on land), they are also where most commercial fisheries are located -- an unfortunate combination. Oil, sewage, and medical wastes washing up on American beaches tell us something about what's happening in the oceans.

Similar problems are occurring around the world. Off the coast of China, the total seawater fishing area has been reduced by a third as a result of the annual discharge of 400 billion gallons of domestic and 1200 billion gallons of industrial sewage.48 According to Professor He Bochuan, whitebait, yellow croaker, prawns, and river crab are almost gone from the Bohai Sea (the northwestern corner of the Yellow Sea, the closest ocean to Beijing) and its estuaries.49

Fisheries productivity has also been indirectly threatened by pollution of estuaries and damage or destruction of coastal wetlands, which serve as important nursery areas and sources of food for numerous oceanic fish stocks. An even greater threat to estuaries and wetlands is posed by the prospect of global warming, which will cause the sea level to rise and flood them.

It seems the riches of the sea may not save us, after all. If humanity is lucky (or careful), it may be possible to maintain the present level of production in the face of the human assault on the oceans and associated wetlands. If not, seafood may increasingly become a luxury food as dwindling catches and rising prices put it beyond the reach of people of modest means.

In this chapter, we've assessed the current food-production picture and considered the precarious food situation of the developing world in particular. In the next chapter, we consider the ecological underpinnings of modern agriculture and the situation in developed nations -- which may not be as secure as most Americans have been led to believe.


1. An intelligent exposition of this view can be found in F. M. Lappe and J. Collins, Food First (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1977). Their book does not seriously consider the potential for absolute shortage, but offers much information on how more people could be fed by changing diets, changing socioeconomic arrangements (who controls and participates in food production), and better distribution. Unfortunately, it ignores an array of environmental and economic issues that are dealt with later in this chapter.

2. R. W. Kates, R. S. Chen, T. E. Downing, J. X. Kasperson, E. Messer, and S. R. Millman, The Hunger Report: 1988 (The Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Program, Brown University, Providence, R.I., 1988).

3. WRI and IIED, World Resources 1988-89 (Basic Books, New York, 1989). The numbers come from the World Bank, which has tracked the increase in their numbers for a few decades and defines them as "absolute poor" -- meaning too poor to buy enough food.

4. For an overview of the current food situation, see L. R. Brown, The Changing World Food Prospect: The Nineties and Beyond, Worldwatch Paper 85 (Worldwatch Institute, Washington, D.C., October 1988); and L. R. Brown et al., State of the World 1989 (Norton, New York, 1989).

5. Sadly, food "gluts" and hunger often exist simultaneously because the poor don't have the money to buy sufficient food even when it's available.

6. It is instructive that Lappe and Collins (note 1) focus on China (as they should) as an example of a nation with "food first" policies. Nevertheless, only a dozen years after they wrote, China again faces the prospect of serious nutritional trouble.

7. K. Forestier, "The Degreening of China," New Scientist, July 1, 1989. Other Chinese agricultural problems include a large decline in irrigated farmland, a shift of population off the farm that has not been accompanied by increased efficiency on the farm, and a sharp drop in investment in agriculture.

8. A study by the Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development in India, cited in L. R. Brown et al., State of the World 1988.

9. B. B. Vohra, A Policy for Land and Water, Sardar Patel Memorial Lecture, New Delhi, 1980.

10. P. Spitz, "The Green Revolution Re-examined in India," in B. Glaeser, ed., The Green Revolution Revisited (Allen and Unwin, London, 1987), pp. 56-75.

11. E. Goldsmith and N. Hildyard, The Earth Report: The Essential Guide to Global Ecological Issues (Price Stern Sloan, New York, 1988), p. 159.

12. UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Tropical Forest Resources, Forestry Paper 30 (Rome, 1982); Centre for Science and Environment, The State of India's Environment 1984-85 (New Delhi, 1985); Associated Press, Oct. 27, 1987. Exact rates of deforestation and degradation of woodlands are not available, hence the vague projection. Some reports say the forests will be largely gone around the year 2000.

13. Associated Press, Oct. 27, 1987.

14. See K. S. Valdiya, "Vulnerable Lands of the Indian Subcontinent," paper presented at conference on Global Warming and Climate Change: Perspectives from Developing Countries, sponsored by the Tata Energy Research Institute, New Delhi, India, Feb. 21-23, 1989 (proceedings in press).

15. L. R. Brown, "World Population Growth, Soil Erosion, and Food Security," Science, vol. 214, pp. 995-1002 (1981). Note that it is impossible to estimate accurately the number of people who starve to death annually. Governments don't publish statistics on how many of their people have died from lack of food -- indeed, officials try to cover up that sign of their own incompetence. Nature aids them in that coverup, since malnourished people don't ordinarily die of starvation, but from the attack of some disease-causing pathogen -- such as diarrhea, measles, or pneumonia -- that easily overwhelms immune systems compromised by malnutrition. Thus officials can credit the deaths to "disease" when lack of food was the basic cause.

16. "Trees: Appropriate Tools for Water and Soil Management," in B. Glaeser, ed., The Green Revolution Revisited, p. 116.

17. World Bank, Poverty and Hunger: Issues and Options for Food Security in Developing Countries (World Bank, Washington, D.C., 1986).

18. L. R. Brown, The Changing World Food Prospect.

19. S. H. Wittwer, "Food Problems in the Next Decades," in D. B. Botkin, M. F. Caswell, J. E. Estes, and A. A. Orio, Changing the Global Environment: Perspectives on Human Involvement (Academic Press, Boston, 1989), p. 119.

20. L. R. Brown, "Reexamining the World Food Prospect," in State of the World 1989, p. 43.

21. B. E. Goldstein, "Indonesia Reconsiders Resettlement," World Watch, March/April 1988.

22. The forest-agriculture situation in the Philippines is detailed in G. Porter and D. Ganapin, Jr., Resources, Population, and the Philippines' Future: A Case Study, World Resources Institute Paper no. 4, October 1989.

23. Goldsmith and Hildyard, The Earth Report, p. 158.

24. B. Glaeser, "Agriculture Between the Green Revolution and Ecodevelopment: Which Way to Go?," in Glaeser, ed., The Green Revolution Revisited, p. 5.

25. Much of the material on Brazil in the following paragraphs is from A. R. Romeiro, "Alternative Developments in Brazil," in Glaeser, ed., The Green Revolution Revisited, pp. 79-110.

26. That is, the workers may be hungry, but they don't have money to buy more food. The money, not the need, creates "demand" in the economic sense used here.

27. More information on tropical deforestation can be found in N. Myers, The Primary Source: Tropical Forests and Our Future (Norton, New York, 1984), and Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, The Vanishing Forest: The Human Consequences of Deforestation (Zed Books, London, 1986).

28. Brown et al., State of the World 1989.

29. Despite the migration northward of several hundred thousand each year. For more on Mexican migration, see P. R. Ehrlich, L. Bilderback, and A. H. Ehrlich, The Golden Door: International Migration, Mexico, and the United States (Wideview Books, New York, 1981).

30. A. H. Ehrlich, "Development and Agriculture," in P. R. Ehrlich and J. P. Holdren, eds., The Cassandra Conference: Resources and the Human Environment (Texas A & M Press, College Station, 1988), pp. 75-100.

31. Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, Famine: A Man-Made Disaster? (Vintage Books, New York, 1985).

32. Ibid., p. 54.

33. L. R. Brown and E. C. Wolf, "Getting Back on Track," in State of the World 1985 (Norton, New York, 1985), p. 230.

34. WRI and IIED, World Resources 1988-89.

35. L. R. Brown et al., State of the World 1987 (Norton, New York, 1987).

36. A. H. Ehrlich, "Development and Agriculture."

37. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, World Agriculture: Situation and Outlook Report, March 1989.

38. Brown et al., State of the World 1989.

39. Much of our information on South Africa was gleaned from various sources, including family-planning workers, professional biologists, wildlife specialists, and environmentalists, during an extended trip there in 1988. South Africa must end apartheid as soon as possible and launch a cooperative effort to achieve a sustainable society, or it will soon find itself overwhelmed by its environmental problems -- on top of the social ones.

40. Brown et al., State of the World 1989.

41. The "tons" here and throughout this chapter are metric tons, equal to 1,000 kilograms or 1.102 short (or English) tons. For the purposes of this book, the 10 percent difference between short and long tons is unimportant and often would be lost in errors of estimation anyway.

42. P. Ehrlich, A. Ehrlich, and J. Holdren, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment (Freeman, San Francisco, 1977); data on fisheries yields from UN 1983/84 Statistical Yearbook (United Nations, New York); and WRI and IIED, World Resources 1988-89.

43. L. R. Brown, "Maintaining World Fisheries," in State of the World 1985 (Norton, New York, 1985); WRI and IIED, World Resources 1988-89.

44. That was in May 1989; whether or not she was correct should be evident in the next few years. Our informant wished to remain anonymous for fear of offending local people. There is strong support for all extractive industries in Alaska, a state that has sold its soul for oil. Fortunately, there appears to be a growing realization in that beautiful state that its present economy is not long sustainable.

45. You can keep casual track of the fisheries situation by noticing how many of your local restaurants offer "blackened" fish dishes. The trend to harvesting less and less desirable fish stocks as the more desirable ones are overfished seems bound to continue ("desirable" means tasty; people will pay more for desirable fishes). One way restaurants have of dealing with fishes that don't taste good is to coat them in so many spices and sauces that you can't taste the fish.

46. More information on the altercation and the North Atlantic fisheries situation can be found in Ehrlich, Ehrlich, and Holdren, Ecoscience.

47. WRI and IIED, World Resources 1988-89.

48. Yang Wenhe, deputy director of the National Bureau of Oceanography, quoted in K. Forestier, "The Degreening of China," p. 53.

49. Quoted in Forestier, op. cit.