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A false grain glut

In 1974 Norman Borlaug, the ''father'' of the Green Revolution in improved agriculture, was quoted as follows:

''By the Green Revolution we have only delayed the world food crisis for another 30 years. If the world population continues to increase at the same rate , we will destroy the species.''

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Unfortunately, there is mounting evidence that, even as Borlaug spoke, his prophecy was coming true. Although world population growth has slowed in recent years, since the early 1970s increases in world production of grain and rice (which comprise most of mankind's food) outside the US have slowed even more.

The Green Revolution had its greatest impact during the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, again excluding US advances, average annual world grain increases for the years 1960 through 1973 were a healthy 4 percent when compared with an estimated annual increase in world population of only 1.9 percent. However, since 1973 the mean annual increase of grain has fallen to only 1.6 percent outside of the US. Moreover, even when United States Department of Agriculture estimates of the record 1981 world crop are included, for the past five years the increase in world grain production outside of the US has fallen even lower, to 1.3 percent, while population advance only slowed to 1.8 percent.

A crucial point to be made is that, since the early 1970s, world grain output per capita has barely held its own, and this only because of enormous increases in US production.

A look at 1981 world grain and rice production in contrast with US production provides the latest, and most dramatic, measure of what has been happening for nearly a decade. As compared to 1980, the USDA 1981 estimate of total world grain and rice output is an increase from 1,431 million metric tons to 1,491 mmt. All but three mmt. of that 60 mmt. increase is accounted for by the 1981 bumper harvest in the US.

In 1981 US grain farmers set another all-time record. They produced 22 percent of all the world's grain and rice estimated to be harvested that year. Thus, more than one in five kernels of the world's major source of food was produced in the US.

As compared to 1973, a good year, the 1981 US crop was 40 percent greater. For the same eight-year period, world production outside of the US increased by only 12 percent. As noted earlier, for the whole period, excluding US increases, world grain and rice output per capita actually declined. This point needs to be viewed in light of two other observations.

* While US grain exports greatly increased during the period, most of the increases went to the more affluent developed nations, and to the USSR and China and not to the hungry developing nations.

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* During the period, although US grain output increased by 40 percent, yields per acre increased by only 14 percent. Thus, most of the advance came from increased sowings, which cannot be repeated. Moreover, the resulting record crops have resulted in reduced grain prices. When inflation is accounted for, farm prices are the worst they have been since the depression of the 1930s. As a result, many US farmers indicate that they will be cutting back production in 1982. Clearly, there is little likelihood that the next decade will see anything like the increases in US output that have sustained world grain production in recent years.

There is a temptation to compare a temporary US grain surplus with the current world ''oil glut,'' but the analogy is false. World grain stocks (mostly held in the US) are low, about a 12-week supply at current levels of utilization. Unlike the situation with fossil fuels, conservation is no answer when hundreds of millions of the world's people are already malnourished. In contrast with petroleum and natural gas, grain and rice are the only real alternatives as the major source of human energy.

Transport and storage problems, not to mention problems of finance, are so immense that moving the quantities of grain needed to solve a mounting world hunger problem are unrealistic, even if the US and the few other food surplus-producing states could significantly increase current levels of production. The great potential for increased food production and availability is in the developing nations themselves, and that potential is not being realized.

At best, record US harvests in recent years have kept a finger in the dike against an impending disaster. At worst they have masked a mounting human tragedy.