Decade by decade, the land has provided - wheat fields, rice paddies, bulging silos of corn keeping pace with a growing world population. But now the grain harvests have leveled off, the people have not, and the world is left to wonder where its next century’s meals will come from.
The blip in the upward slope of grain production in the 1990s has ready explanations: Economics, politics and weather conspired to hold down global output.
But some specialists believe longer-range forces, from the Kansas prairie to China’s river deltas, are also at work - and the outlook is troubling.
Troubling enough, in Africa particularly, for the Food and Agriculture Organization to hold a global summit in Rome this week to search for new approaches to help poor nations grow, buy or otherwise get more food.
“We are in a crisis situation,” said FAO chief Jacques Diouf.
His U.N. agency projects world agricultural production must expand by 75 percent by 2025 to match population growth. It’s not off to a good start.
New FAO figures show that the global grain harvest - forecast at 1,821 million tons for 1996-97 - will have increased by just 2.3 percent since 1990, while population was growing 10 percent.
Grain is the surest gauge of food supplies, since it provides most of man’s calories, either directly or through grain-fed meat.
Because of this lag in production, grain prices rose and the world’s buffer stocks of wheat, rice and other grains were drawn down. Reserves now stand at 277 million tons - some 40 million below what the FAO considers safe to meet emergencies.
A mix of factors helped stunt the decade’s crops: Agriculture collapsed with the political system in the former Soviet Union; the U.S. and other governments began “de-subsidizing” farmers’ grain surpluses; poor growing weather plagued America and Russia; Chinese grainland was giving way to factories and exploding cities.
Some see deeper causes, however.
Lester Brown of Washington’s Worldwatch Institute maintains that fertilizers and high-yield grain varieties have been pushed to their limit in many places. And underground water sources, from Kansas and Colorado to Iran and India, are drying up.
“I think each year now it will become more difficult to rebuild grain stocks,” Brown said.
Worldwatch sees China as a huge problem. Shrinking croplands, rising incomes and a growing middle-class appetite for meat - an inefficient means for passing along the calories of grain - have combined to turn China, almost overnight, into the world’s No. 2 grain importer, behind Japan.
“It is only a matter of time until China’s grain import needs overwhelm the export capacity of the United States and other exporting countries,” Brown contended.
Others dispute his pessimism. A key FAO forecaster, Nikos Alexandratos, said Brown relies on shaky Chinese statistics.
Besides, he said, Brown’s scenario would have China’s economy and consumption booming at the same time as the industry that supports most of its population, agriculture, is collapsing. That seems impossible, Alexandratos said.
On the broader, global point, the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank, finds some agreement among major studies that birth rates may slow enough to allow a plodding agriculture to keep up with “effective” demand - the demand from consumers with the money to buy.
But that projection comes with asterisks attached: In Africa and other poor regions without that money, hundreds of millions will remain underfed. And a permanently tighter balance between supply and demand will leave the world more vulnerable to weather shocks and price shocks.
To Luther Tweeten, the outcome is far from clear.
Looking ahead to 2030, the Ohio State University agricultural economist stacked the global trend in peracre yields - rising ever more slowly - up against U.N. population projections. The yields lose out.
“I don’t want to take a Lester Brown approach on this,” Tweeten said, but the world cannot be complacent. “It’s daunting.”
Surprising innovations may prove crucial, Tweeten said - for example, an edible “stew” made out of dense biomass like willow trees or sugar cane. “Science is the key to the future of food,” he said.
At the FAO summit, delegates will be looking for keys to more food today.
The FAO estimates 800 million people are undernourished worldwide, at a time when high prices have undercut international food aid, slicing it in half since 1993 to today’s 7.7 million tons of grain a year.
The summit will try to encourage increased aid, stepped-up research and pro-agriculture policies in Africa and other food-short regions.
“The ultimate problem is economic development,” Alexandratos said. “They must get their own agriculture moving.”
But Brown sees one more ultimate solution - population control.
“I think we’re now in a new situation where the primary responsibility for balancing food and people lies with family planners, rather than fishermen and farmers,” he said. “And I don’t think the world has quite grasped that yet.”
Even China’s aggressive family planning will take precious decades to stabilize its population, now 1.2 billion. By 2025, China’s farmers - and grain importers - will have 400 million more mouths to feed.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: STAVING OFF HUNGER The specialists say progress must be made on several fronts: Russia and other former Soviet republics must be rebuilt into major grain exporters. More fertilizer should be spread in Africa and other places where it is underused because of its expense. High-production regions must cultivate what little good land still lies fallow. Governments must spend more on agricultural research.