As Earth's Population Soars, Food Supply Dwindles

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 1994 | Go to article overview

As Earth's Population Soars, Food Supply Dwindles


Forgotten or buried inside most newspapers and receiving scant, if any, coverage on television last week, was a report with mind-numbing implications for the planet.

A new study shows the earth is experiencing a massive slowdown in the growth of food. The Washington-based Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 1994 report states that the growth of oceanic fisheries has come to a halt and land-based food systems have now fallen behind population growth.

Constraints imposed by the earth's natural systems - the environmental degradation of land and water resources and the diminishing backlog of yield-raising agricultural technologies - are slowing the growth in world food production, according to the report. This raises anew questions about the earth's population-carrying capacity, writes Lester Brown, senior author.

"The natural constraints can be seen most clearly in oceanic fisheries where growth in the fish catch came to a halt in 1989, after multiplying more than fourfold since 1950," Brown writes. The report states that U.N. estimates indicate that all 17 of the world's major fishing areas have either reached or exceeded their natural limits and that nine are in decline. "The resulting drop in the per capita seafood catch, an estimated 9 percent from, 1989 to 1993, will continue as population grows, driving seafood prices ever higher," the report notes.

Meanwhile, in many parts of the word, the demand for fresh water is pressing to hydrological limits. The resulting freshwater scarcity is slowing the growth in irrigation, one of the keys to expanding food output, according to the report.

The report found there has been no growth in grain land since 1981 and a slowdown in the rise in rice yields in Asia. Rice production has dropped below consumption in each of the past three years, drawing down stocks, the report notes.

The bottom line, State of the World 1994 insists, is that the world's farmers can no longer be counted on to feed the projected additions to the planet's numbers. It concluded that achieving a humane balance between food and population now depends more on family planners than on farmers.

This information will likely be the focus of much discussion when the World Conference on Population and Development opens in September in Cairo.

The information again challenges Catholic leaders to reconsider some of the church's answers to population and development questions. (And who today does not link these two words?) The church, to its credit, has been at the forefront in insisting that answers lie in achieving a more just distribution of the world's resources, although bishops - such as San Cristobal, Mexico, Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia - who have spoken out against unjust social structures have had their knuckles rapped by Rome.

But along with such commendable talk are hard realities. Thousands of children die daily in poor nations, their deaths the result of complications stemming from lack of adequate food and water. …

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