“There's a wealth of real possibilities for change to a more sustainable and more human course.” – Bill McKibben, billmckibben.com on Plan B.
Chapter 7. Feeding Everyone Well: Introduction
In November 1965, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman asked if I would draft a plan to get India's agriculture moving. The monsoon had failed that summer, leaving India to face a potential famine of historic proportions. India had been neglecting its agriculture in favor of industrial development and had no grain reserves. As one official in New Delhi put it, "Our reserves are in the grain elevators in Kansas."
President Lyndon Johnson was concerned, because he knew that the United States could not feed India's growing population over the long term. He wanted a plan for India to develop its agriculture and an agreement that India would implement the plan promptly in exchange for massive food relief. Since I was working as an Asian agricultural analyst in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was familiar with India, having spent part of 1956 living in villages there, I was chosen to draft the plan.
The key steps for India to take were straightforward. The first was to shift from an urban-oriented policy of ceiling prices for grain that discouraged investment in agriculture to a rural-oriented policy of support prices that would encourage farmers to invest in improving their land and other output-expanding measures. The second step was to move the fertilizer industry out of the government sector, where it took up to nine years to build a fertilizer plant, into the private sector, where plants could be built in two years. The third was to harness the abundant underground water resources for irrigation. The fourth was to disseminate quickly the high-yielding wheats that had already been tested and approved for use in India.
During the year following signature of the agreement, the United States shipped a fifth of its wheat crop to India to offset the poor harvest. Two ships left U.S. ports each day laden with grain for India—part of the largest movement of grain between two countries in history. Between 1965 and 1973, India doubled its wheat harvest, a record gain for a major country. The agricultural plan succeeded beyond our hopes as India became self-sufficient in grain.1
The plan I drafted in November 1965 was not difficult. Any number of people could have come up with such a scheme because the needed steps were so obvious. Today, however, with its population projected to grow by 563 million by 2050, India is facing a far more complex challenge. Achieving a humane balance between food and people may now depend more on the success of family planners in accelerating the shift to smaller families than on farmers. In India, as in the world as a whole, soil erosion, aquifer depletion, and climate change are the principal threats to the sustainability of agriculture, to building the food sector of an eco-economy.2
Expanding food production to feed the world's growing numbers will be far more difficult during this half-century than it was over the last. During the last half of the twentieth century, the world's farmers nearly tripled grain production, boosting it from 631 million tons in 1950 to 1,835 million tons in 2000. This half-century gain was nearly double that from the beginning of agriculture, some 11,000 years ago, until 1950.3
Impressive though this achievement was, most of the progress was cancelled by population growth. Today, 1.1 billion of the world's 6.1 billion people are still undernourished and underweight. Hunger and the fear of starvation quite literally shape their lives.4
Eradicating the hunger that exists today and feeding those to be added tomorrow is a worthy challenge, one made all the more difficult because two of the world's three food systems—rangelands and oceanic fisheries—are already being pushed to or even beyond their sustainable yields. The output of croplands has not yet reached its limit, but the rise in cropland productivity has slowed over the last decade.
In its most basic form, hunger is a productivity problem. Typically people are hungry because they do not produce enough food to meet their needs or because they do not earn enough money to buy it. The only lasting solution is to raise their productivity—a task complicated by the ongoing shrinkage in both the cropland area and irrigation water per person in developing countries.
1. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply, and Distribution, electronic database, Washington, DC, updated May 2001.
2. Medium population projection from United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2000 Revision (New York: February 2001).
3. Grain production from USDA, op. cit. note 1.
4. Figure of 1.1 billion hungry is a Worldwatch Institute estimate from United Nations Administrative Committee on Coordination, Sub-Committee on Nutrition (UN ACC/SCN) in collaboration with International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Fourth Report on the World Nutrition Situation (Geneva: January 2000), and from Rafael Flores, Research Fellow, IFPRI, Washington, DC, e-mail to Brian Halweil, Worldwatch Institute, 5 November 1999, and discussion with Gary Gardner, Worldwatch Institute, 3 February 2000, found in Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil, Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition, Worldwatch Paper 150 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, March 2000); U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The State of Food Insecurity in the World (Rome: 1999), p. 6.
Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute