Global food production has grown rapidly over the past 30 years, managing to outstrip population growth. Yet today, in a world that can produce enough food to supply a?? adequate diet for all, hundreds of millions of people go hungry. Chronic undernutrition persists mainly in countries with low incomes, most of which depend heavily on agriculture So long as that is the case, eliminating hunger will require concerted efforts to accelerate agricultural and rural development in those very countries
AS HEADS OF STATE and government gather in Rome for the World Food Summit, they can look with satisfaction on the progress that has been made in increasing food production and food security, with concern on the high levels of hunger and malnutrition that persist, and with dismay on the prospect that future progress will be slow and uneven.
After 30 years of rapid growth in agricultural production, the world can produce enough food to provide every person with more than 2 700 Calories per day a level which is normally sufficient to ensure that all have access to adequate food, provided distribution is not too unequal.
Yet more than 800 million people in the developing world suffer from chronic undernutrition. Lack of essential energy and protein stunts the bodies, minds and hopes of some 200 million children.
Over the past few years, world grain stocks have dwindled to dangerously low levels, highlighting the fragility of food supplies in a world where the population is expected to reach 7 billion people by the year 2010, almost double the 3.7 billion of 1970.
IN THE EARLY 1960s, global food supplies for direct human consumption stood at only 2 300 Calories per person per day, very unequally distributed. In developed countries the average was already 3 030 Calories per day. In the developing world it languished below 2 000. Probably more than half the people in the developing world suffered from chronic undernutrition.
Then over 30 years, the world population more than doubled. But agricultural production increased even faster. By 1994, global food supplies for human consumption had climbed to 2 710 Calories per person per day. And the percentage of chronically undernourished people in the developing world had been reduced to 20 percent. These gains resulted from a number of factors including:
Increased cereal yields in developing countries (kg/ha)
Non cereal import of developing countries (millions of tonnes/year)
Despite gains in food production and food security on a world scale, many countries and whole regions failed to make progress in recent decades.
Sub-Saharan Africa produces less food per person today than it did 30 years ago. The number of chronically undernourished people in the region has more than doubled since 1970, from 96 million to over 200 million.
Food production per person (1980=100)
For the most part, countries endowed with better resources to begin with scored rapid gains in food production. On the other hand, yields generally stagnated in those countries that started with very low yields. Wheat yields in the ten most productive countries jumped from 2.65 to 5.12 tonnes per hectare. But average yields among countries at the other end of the scale edged up only from 0.47 to 0.76 tonnes per hectare.
After achieving significant growth in per caput food production during the 1960s, numerous developing countries failed to make progress over the past two decades. The majority of them registered outright declines between 1972 and 1992.
Looking ahead to the year 2010, world agricultural growth is expected to slow but should still outpace population growth. As a result, food availability in the developing countries will improve to an average above 2 700 Calories per person per day.
Per caput supplies in developing countries
But not all regions and countries will share equally in these gains in production and nutrition. The situation in Africa south of the Sahara will deteriorate further, while progress in South Asia will be painfully slow.
By the year 2010, the number of chronically undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa may still be some 264 million, or 30 percent of the population.
Overall some 680 million people may still suffer from chronic undernutrition in 2010 - only a small decline from today although they will represent a smaller percentage of the total population.
WHILE agricultural production will grow faster than world population over the coming decades, the margin will continue to shrink. The annual increase in production per person will be cut in half - from 0.54 percent during the years 1970 to 1990 to only 0.25 percent in 1990 to 2010.
This slowdown reflects some positive trends. People in many countries already eat as much as they want, leaving little room for further increases. But it also reflects the grim reality that hundreds of millions of people who desperately need more food cannot afford to buy it at prices that would stimulate increased production. Most of the projected gains in production will come from more intensive agriculture and increased yields, rather than from farming new lands.
Sources of growth in crop production
(percentage of projected gains 1988/90-2010)
Although significant reserves of potential agricultural land can be identified at a global level, much of this is concentrated in a few countries or is only marginally suitable for crop production.
World agricultural production
Average rates % of annual growth
in per caput production
Developing countries will depend even more heavily on food imports. Net imports are likely to increase to more than 160 million tonnes by the year 2010.
IN THE PAST, expansion and intensification of agriculture have often damaged the very resources essential to farming - such as soil, water and the genetic diversity of crops - as well as the wider environment.
Soil erosion and other forms of land degradation rob the world of 5 million to 7 million ha of farming land every year. Clearing forests or growing crops on steep slopes or on large fields without protection against the wind can lead to erosion.
Waterlogging and salinization caused by poor drainage have sapped the productivity of nearly half the world's irrigated lands. Some 30 million ha have been severely damaged and an additional 1.5 million ha are lost each year.
Excess use of mineral fertilizers and pesticides can pollute surface and: groundwater sources. Nitrates from fertilizers and feedlot wastes have contaminated groundwater in many countries and have been identified as a health risk, especially for infants. At the same time, in some countries the use of too little fertilizer depletes soil nutrients and contributes to soil degradation.
Loss of genetic diversity has accelerated with the spread of intensive agriculture and high-yielding crop varieties to large parts of the developing world, replacing the traditional diversity of crops with monocultures.
Deforestation accelerated during the 1980s, with more than 15 million ha of tropical forests lost each year, mainly to provide land for agriculture.
Agriculture also contributes significantly to release of greenhouse gases that have been linked to global warming. Some 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions result from deforestation and other land use practices such as rangeland burning and agriculture may account for as much as 90 percent of nitrous oxide emissions.
The challenge for the future will be to simuitaneously Intensify production and minimize harm to the resources and the wider environment upon which present and future generations depend.
For further information, please contact:
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy
Information Division, Tel: (39-6) 5225-3276/5225-4781/5225-4243
Global Perspectives Studies Unit, Tel: (39-6) 5225-4266
Internet, http://www.fao.org or gopher.fao.org