National Geographic : 1975 Jul
Australia, Argentina, and Africa. Typhoons and drought slashed harvests in the Philip pines, and excessive rains bogged down Unit ed States corn and soybean crops. Peru's fish catch, traditionally the world's largest, drastically declined-and with it, a major source of poultry and livestock feed. Ominously, the world's need for fertilizer, in creasing each year by leaps and bounds, shot past manufacturing capacity. Meanwhile the grain-short U.S.S.R., revers ing a practice of belt tightening during times of poor harvests, quietly entered world mar kets and bought up a staggering 28 million tons of grain, most of it from the U. S. Comforting Surplus Suddenly Vanishes "The U. S. surpluses," notes economist Te tro, "had cushioned the world against food shortages and price fluctuations for two dec ades." With these all but gone, needy nations scrambled for what was left. Prices soared, and food switched roles from an anchor against inflation to a leader in the spiral. A year later the energy crisis struck, hitting hardest those poorer nations lacking both oil and fertilizer, and the money to buy them. From a position of almost unwanted abun dance, the world in a few short years had seen its food reserves drawn down to only a few weeks' supply. The international cup board was nearly bare. By May 1974 the United Nations Economic and Social Council had concluded that, though "history records more acute short ages in individual countries . .. it is doubtful whether such a critical food situation has ever been so worldwide." At a campuslike research center outside Mexico City, where he carries on his crusade to help the world help itself, Dr. Norman E. Borlaug (page 23) sketched the dimensions of the problem for me. "Two-thirds of the human population of 3.9 billion," he explained, "live in the poorest countries-those least able to supply their peoples' needs. They also have the highest birthrates; of the 74 million people added to our population each year, four of five will be born in a have-not country." Dr. Borlaug, a geneticist, won world re nown (and a Nobel Peace Prize) for his devel opment in the 1950's of "miracle" strains of wheat that launched the Green Revolution in many countries. In his early experiments in Mexico, for lack of enough assistants and Treating with disease instead of a cure (above), a pathologist injects fungus spores into corn at a research center in Mexico. Traits of those plants showing resistance to diseases are bred into high-yielding strains. Ravaged by searing winds during last year's drought, this ear of Nebraska corn (facing page) produced but two lonely ker nels. Slashing the nation's corn crop by a fourth, bad weather drove a few farmers to publicly slaughter their calves in an effort to dramatize the high costs of feeding livestock. Today, as in ancient times, drought and crop disease can be harbingers of famine. Can the World Feed Its People?