HS-107 Readings

Food Production and Population Growth

    As the third millennium begins, human population has exceeded 6 billion people. Population momentum will guarantee a continued population growth for the next two or three decades in spite of world wide declines in the total fertility rate. Approximately 99% of this growth will take place in the less developed areas of the world; that is, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Meanwhile, the area of greatest food production is North America, the least populated of the developed areas of the world.

    While North America enjoys food surpluses, sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly, the Sahel region just south of the Saharan Desert is experiencing a chronic food deficit. Periodically, famine strikes the region because of drought, often worsened by regional warfare.

    The international community; non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies, have so far had the capability and the resources to relieve famine, provided that warfare did not interfere with the delivery of food and medicine. The response has not always been timely in spite of the best efforts of the agencies and people involved, and the future is uncertain. Continued population growth requires continued increases in food production.

    During the last half-century, worldwide food production from farming has kept pace with population growth. The green revolution involved the development of disease-resistant and drought-resistant strains of wheat and rice which have substantially increased the yield per unit of land. The biologist, Norman Borlaug, working on the Mexican wheat crop, developed a dwarf variety of wheat in the 1950,s which was the beginning of the green revolution. Mexico, which had been threatened with food shortages, became able, for a time, to produce a food surplus. In 1965, the Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, funded by the Rockefeller foundation, developed similar results with the rice crop. India had experienced famine in the 1960,s, but after the green revolution was introduced there, India also was able, for a while, to produce a surplus. The green revolution provided an additional twenty years reprieve before population growth absorbed the increases in food production.

    There are a number of disadvantages related to the green revolution. Among these is the requirement for large quantities of artificial fertilizer to enable the dwarf varieties to produce the increased food value. The increased cost of fertilizer favored the richer farmer and drove less prosperous farmers off the land. Furthermore, the continued mutation of disease-causing organisms, which prey on the new varieties make it necessary to continually modify the crops to keep them disease-resistant. The green revolution also encouraged the practice of planting the same variety throughout the cultivated land. This monoculture is much more susceptible to a disastrous failure if the agro-scientists do not stay ahead of the mutation process.

    These developments suggest the nature of the problems to be dealt with in the future. Improved agricultural efficiency is needed to stay even with population growth but it must be accomplished in an environmentally sustainable way that avoids potentially catastrophic crop failures and preserves the soil from degradation. It also must be accomplished in an equitable fashion that does not discriminate against the less wealthy farmers. A  majority of the farmers in the poorest areas of the world are women, and they are usually the most marginal farmers, and those least likely to be able to receive credit and other outside assistance. The empowerment of women, which was one of the recommendations of the Cairo conference on population in 1995, is important to deal with both aspects of the food-population equation.

    Other problems that need to be addressed are:
        1. Urban sprawl.
        2. Soil erosion, both from wind and water.
        3. Salinization, which is associated with irrigation.
        4. Desertification or the spreading of deserts resulting from overuse and misuse of the land, and
        5. Monocultures

    Methods of rejuvenating and preserving soil involve:
        1. conservation tillage which minimizes soil erosion and preserves moisture in the soil.
        2. rotation of crops to use natural soil fertility most efficiently. This may be coupled with allowng some land to lie fallow, and planting legumes in alternate years with the grain crops.
        3.using animal manure where possible and minimizing the use of chemical fertilizers, especially to avoid runoff and pollution of water sources.

    Methods of irrigation involve:
        1. large hydroelectic projects. Environmental impact studies should be required.
        2. spraying which may involve inefficient use of available water supplies.
        3. drip irrigation which is the most efficient method and least  likely to create a salinization problem, but is also very costly.

    Methods of combating weeds, rodents, and insect pests should involve the application of Integrated Pest Management (IPM):
        1. using biological controls wherever possible, and minimizing the use of chemical insecticides.
        2. using disease-resistant varieties of crops, but also
        3. using crop rotation and avoiding a monoculture.

    Farmers require institutional support if they are going to continue to meet the challenge. This involves:
        1. readily available access to credit.
        2. latest information on marketing; cost, pricing, etc.
        3. good roads, railroads, and other transportation facilities.
        4. availability of the latest agricultural technology.

    Governments will need to become involved in order to:
        1. provide for the infrastructure.
        2. encourage research in biotechnology.
        3. advise and assist in the conservation of nature.
        4. address the global problems of climate change as they may affect agriculture.
        5. avoid the misuse of tariffs or other trade regulations which might discriminate against the farmer.