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close this bookCERES No. 134 (FAO Ceres, 1992, 50 p.)
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View the documentWorld grain supply shrinks to one week
View the documentIn brief

World grain supply shrinks to one week

World food production is growing more slowly than population, and security of food supplies could soon replace national defence as the prime concern of many governments, warns the Worldwatch Institute.

The independent "think tank's" president, Lester R. Brown, told observers in Washington, DC recently, that the world's 1991 grain harvest suffered the largest one-year drop on record, and that grain production has been lagging behind world population growth for several years. "The annual growth of grain production has averaged about one per cent over the last seven years, while that of population has averaged closer to two per cent", Brown said.

The institute presented data indicating that the world's actual reserve of grain beyond requirements for consumption and "pipeline" stocks is sufficient for only about one week. (Cereal grains account for nearly 75 per cent of total human food, either directly - in foods such as bread - or indirectly for feeding livestock to produce meat, milk and eggs.)

Brown cited data showing that the projected grain carry-over of 319 million tons would amount to only 68 days' use at the year's estimated rate of consumption. He admitted that this understates the actual tightness of present supplies, because it fails to take account of the requirements for the "pipeline" that extends from farms to consumers. This cannot be depleted without skyrocketing prices and severe disruption of transport, processing and food distribution operations.

During 1973-75, when annual carry-over of grain amounted to only 55, 56 and 60 days' use, respectively, grain prices more than doubled, grain-using industries, livestock production and markets were severely disrupted, and consumption was curtailed. A graph presented by the institute showed 60 days' use as a critical level of grain carry-over stocks. Except for the world food crisis during the mid-1970s, only once in the past 40 years has that level been even closely approached. That was when stocks were drawn sharply down to 61 days' use in 1965, to provide emergency famine relief to India.

Brown said adverse weather in the former Soviet Union and the United States was the main cause of the 86 million ton drop in 1991 grain production. But "the longer-term food prospect is darkened" by other factors that are likely to be less transient, he warned.

"First", he said, "the global crop-land area stopped expanding during the 1980s". The area planted to grain is slightly smaller than a decade ago, and "the annual addition of 90 million people is markedly reducing the amount of cropland per person", he added.

Meanwhile, the growth of irrigated cropland has dwindled to only one per cent per year since 1980, after nearly tripling between 1950 and 1980 and expanding the irrigated area per person by roughly one-half. "The world's farmers must now contend not only with the longstanding shrinkage of cropland per person, but also a shrinkage of irrigated area per person", Brown remarked.

He also cited slower growth of fertilizer use. "Between 1950 and 1984, world fertilizer use climbed from 14 to 129 million tons, multiplying ninefold, or nearly seven per cent per year", Brown said. "Since 1984, fertilizer use has expanded less than two per cent annually.

"The environmental degradation of the planet" also is affecting food output, he noted, citing "air pollution, acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion and soil erosion" for "taking a toll on grain production".

Noting that US Department of Agriculture data show world per capita consumption of grain will fall by 3.4 per cent per person this year, Brown said the greatest year-to-year drop in consumption will occur in the former Soviet Union. But "the greatest suffering is expected in 43 countries with over 800 million people where the World Bank reports incomes have been falling for at least a decade".
Robert G. Lewis