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Feeding the world. As the UN marks World Food Day, mankind faces the perplexing spectacle of both famine and surplus

THE numbers point to a world of distressing contrasts - of well-fed millions and underfed billions - as the United Nations marks today as World Food Day. This imbalance seems destined to increase. Of the 145 babies born in the world each minute, only 6 are in the wealthy triad: North America, Europe, and Japan. At the turn of the century, the 10 most populous cities in the world were all in the United States, Europe, and Japan; by the year 2000, only two triad cities, New York and Tokyo, will remain in the top 10.

Government policies in both the first and third worlds have contributed in major ways to the current food imbalance. Subsidies and support systems have led to overproduction in the West, while third-world governments have tended to favor industry at the expense of agriculture. And where farming does receive government backing, it is often in the form of Western-style, high-technology agriculture in the hands of a land-owning elite whose production is geared to export and not toward feeding the people.

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According to Frances Moore Lapp'e, author of the best-selling book ``Diet for a Small Planet,'' the real cause of hunger is the ``control of food-producing resources in the hands of a few.'' In Haiti, for example, peasants are forced to farm marginal land on the mountainside while the best bottom lands are largely retained in pasture to produce beef for export to the US. The third world is filled with such examples, Ms. Lapp'e contends.

Meanwhile, world population growth, though not the immediate cause of world hunger, cannot be ignored. In 1820, world population reached its first billion. It took another century to reach 2 billion, but less than 70 years to pass 5 billion. By most projections there will be 8 billion mouths to feed as early as 2020, most of them in countries least able to feed themselves.

These dramatic population increases will take place just as the world crosses another important frontier - the end of the era of cheap fossil fuels, which raised food production in the 20th century, just as bringing new land under cultivation had done in the past. Dr. Vernon W. Ruttan, professor of agricultural development at the University of Minnesota, sums up the challenge in the Rodale Institute's publication ``More Food'':

``There would appear to be little doubt that it will be necessary in the next century to learn how to `invent around' the constraints on agricultural growth imposed by the closing of the fossil-fuel frontier..., just as it was necessary during the 20th century to `invent around' the closing of the land frontier.''

The chronically underfed regions of the world could become major beneficiaries of this new approach. High-yielding, stress-tolerant plants (perhaps produced through genetic manipulation), which would need less fertilizer and fewer pesticides, may become even more important to the third-world farmer than to his Western counterpart. While large-scale farming will continue (see story, above right), the development of intensive ``micro-farming'' methods (story, below right) also shows considerable promise.

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