National Geographic : 1975 Jul
plasm bank, some 30,000 strains of rice. These provide seeds for genetic experiments-and represent an insurance policy for the future. With new varieties fast displacing nature's originals, local strains possessing vital resis tances to pests or diseases could be erased forever unless preserved in the bank. "We've developed strains with a fifth more protein," said Dr. Brady. "That's important, because rice provides 80 percent of some Asians' protein." So far, though, yield has dropped when more protein is bred in. High priority goes to solving the fertilizer problem. "Our best bet for the long haul," said agricultural economist Randolph Barker, "lies in finding rice plants whose roots will serve as hosts to nitrogen-fixing bacteria, just as those of soybeans do. This way they would provide much of their own nutrient." At re search centers around the world I heard echoes of Dr. Barker's belief that develop ment of nitrogen-fixing grasses-including not only rice but also wheat, corn, and pasture varieties-offers great opportunities for dra matic improvement in world agriculture. Is Doomsday in the Offing? Ultimately, all of my inquiries pointed to a single question: What are the prospects of feeding ourselves on our ever-more crowded planet? "The race between population growth and food production has already been lost," maintains biologist Paul R. Ehrlich of Stan ford University. "Before 1985 the world will undergo vast famines-hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death ... un less plague, thermonuclear war, or some other agent kills them first." Among some this pessimism has led even further, into the realm of how the "have" nations should react when massive famine strikes the "have nots." One such scenario is called the "lifeboat ethic." It prescribes that the self-sufficient nations must, at some point, refuse help to those who are stricken, lest the added burden swamp the survivors' lifeboat, dragging all to the bottom. At the other end of the scale, Harvard pop ulation and resource specialist Roger Revelle computes that the earth's arable land area, if properly developed, could produce "edible plant material... for between 38 and 48 bil lion people"-ten times today's population. Most experts with whom I talked take a position somewhere between Dr. Ehrlich's pessimism and Dr. Revelle's theoretical extreme. In large measure they share the con ditional optimism of Dr. Don Paarlberg, Director of Agricultural Economics for the U. S. Department of Agriculture. "Barring disasters caused by bad weather," he believes, "food production can stay half a step ahead of demand for a few decades. After that, unless population comes under control, it may be hopeless." Heading the list of hopeful auguries is the accelerated pace of worldwide agricultural research, particularly the new emphasis on the tropical hunger belt. But other elements also support this guarded optimism: * A new will to win. "For the first time," says Dr. Wortman of the Rockefeller Foundation, "the nations of the world may possess the will to concentrate on raising agricultural productivity. When leaders of developing countries could depend on food gifts or im ports, they tended to ignore their own agri cultural sector in favor of industrial schemes. But they know they can't stay in power with a lot of hungry people on their hands. Raising more food has become a matter not only of human, but of political, survival." * Nowhere to go but up. "It may sound para doxical, but the low level of productivity in most needy lands represents one of their brightest future hopes," asserts Dr. Chandler of the vegetable center. "The rice farmer of India or Bangladesh could readily double his yield of 1,500 pounds an acre with better varieties and techniques." Dr. S. R. Sen, an executive director of the World Bank, be lieves that India and Bangladesh can increase their productivity threefold. Others believe world food production can be doubled. * Crop monitoring by satellite. Beginning this year U. S. satellites are surveying the growth and health of part of the U. S. wheat crop. If this succeeds, the monitoring eventu ally will cover wheat plantings worldwide, and perhaps other crops. With accurate and timely warning of crop scarcity, the world could respond before disaster strikes. * Growing emphasis on small farmers. "Be cause of the attention they give their hold ings," observes James P. Grant, President of the Overseas Development Council, "small farmers more than pull their own weight. An Indian farmer with five acres produces half again as much per acre as does one with ten times as much land. We tend to overlook the fact that per-acre yields in the U. S. are Can the World Feed Its People?