Keith Abercrombie is Director of the Policy Analysis Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. He has more than twenty years experience of working with the world agricultural problem at the FAO and is a former editor of their annual report on "The State of Food and Agriculture”. Mr. Abercrombie is expressing his personal opinions, not necessarily those of the FAO.
As a result of two successive years of disappointing harvests in the developing countries, world food supplies are making one of their rare appearances in the headlines. The last time was in the very same circumstances of two bad seasons in succession in 1965 and 1966. In tile intervening years the magic words `miracle seeds' and `green revolution' have helped to nourish a premature belief that all was well with agriculture in the developing countries.
Similar swings between optimism and pessimism about food supplies have occurred throughout history. But to a great extent the latest particularly rapid shifts reflect a failure to see beyond the immediate situation to tile underlying, longer term issues. This shortsightedness not only afflicts public opinion but also - with more serious consequences --- many of the governments on whose action so much depends in the difficult process of agricultural development in the poor countries.
Paradoxically, it could eventually prove to be beneficial that two bad years for agriculture have come right at the outset of the second United Nations development decade (DD2). Because of this timing, there may be a better chance than usual that fears about the immediate situation will lead to longer-term action. Such a poor start to the decade is already prompting serious consideration of whether governments are doing all that is necessary to achieve the agricultural targets of DD2. For. although tile DD2 targets are sadly modest in terms of the improvements in living conditions they can bring to underprivileged people, they are quite ambitious in terms of tile performance they require from the agriculture of the developing countries.
There is no doubt that the world food situation at the beginning of 1973 is more precarious than it has been for several years. Following the last difficult situation at the time when the outcome of tile 1967 harvests was awaited, for four years the increase in agricultural production in the developing countries kept comfortably ahead of the growth of population. Since then, mainly because of the weather, production in these countries rose by only 1% in 1971 (compared with population growth of 2.7%), and the limited information so far available indicates that the increase in 1972 is unlikely to have been much larger.
The overall situation may be illustrated by what has happened in the Far East region, which contains almost 60% of the population of the Third World Outside China and is the area worst affected by hunger and malnutrition. After falling in 1965 and barely recovering in 1966. agricultural production in the Far East rose by 4% or more in each of the next four years. This greatly improved performance resulted not only from more favourable weather but also from the introduction of the high-yielding g varieties of wheat and rice in several countries. Another important change was that, in the light of the near-disasters of 1965 and 1966 and the expectation that food imports on concessional terms would be less readily obtainable than in tile past, a number of governments belatedly realized that it was necessary to pay more attention to agriculture in their development policies.
In India, where an exceptional run of five good monsoons lasted until 1971. it was possible -- despite considerable problems of finance, transport and storage - to build government reserve stocks of foodgrains, up to the unprecedented level of about 9.5 million tons by the middle of 1972. Harvests were also good in Indonesia in 1971, but the war in Bangladesh and floods in tile Philippines kept the total increase in agricultural production in the Far East clown to about
In 1972 tile monsoon failed in most of south Asia. As a result the production of foodgrains, and especially rice, was greatly reduced in many countries, including Bangladesh, Burma, India, Indonesia and Thailand. Crops in the Philippines suffered from typhoons and floods, and total agricultural production in the Far East may have declined in 1972. Serious shortages are reported in a number of areas, particularly Bangladesh and parts of India and Indonesia, but the situation is still far from clear.
Production in the other developing regions has continued to increase more steadily than in tile Far East, with the exception of Latin America in 1971 and probably Africa in 1971 But a big difference between these two years lies in what happened in the developed countries. Whereas in 1971 production in these countries rose by 6%c, so that - notwithstanding the poor results in developing countries - world production still grew by 3%. gm 1972 production in the developed parts of the world may even have fallen. The principal cause is the exceptionally unfavourable weather that reduced grain production by 11% in the Soviet Union in 1972.
The Russian crop failure has enormously affected the world grain market. Tile Soviet Union is likely to import 27 million metric tons of grain during the 1972/73 marketing season, mostly from the United States. Although oil a much smaller scale; China's import needs are expected to increase as a result of moderate harvests; India and some other countries have had to resume imports, and Brazil's import requirements have been sharply increased by a poor wheat crop. Only a small fraction of produced in tile world enters international trade, but wheat exports will probably increase from 52 million tons in 1971/72 to as much as 68 to 70 million in 1972/73. This large jump in trade is causing heavy Pressure on shipping space, and has led to a rise in wheat export prices by about 75% during the course of 1972.
The world's reserves of the grains which are man's main staple food are mostly held in a few rich countries, particularly tile United States and Canada, where they have piled up - more or less unintentionally as a result of surplus, unsold production in earlier years. Although not deliberately constituted for this purpose, these stocks have for the past 20 years or so cushioned the world against famine and provided, both on ordinary commercial terms and as food aid, for abnormal import needs resulting from poor crops elsewhere in the world.
In many ways, therefore, the world food situation at the beginning of 1973 is similar to that in early 1967. In both years the two preceding harvests were poor in the developing countries as a whole, with world stocks at the lowest level for some time. A new feature is the big rise in grain export prices, reflecting the fact that the Russian imports have been on a commercial basis, whereas tile main shipments in 1965 and 1966 were as concessional food aid to developing countries. Domestic food prices in developing countries have risen on both occasions, however, bringing additional hardship to the many poor consumers who have to spend most of their income on food. Another new feature this time is that there is an incipient shortage of fertilizers, which are perhaps the most important single ingredient for obtaining higher yields. Fertilizer prices on world markets have climbed steeply in recent months, although they are still lower than in the mid 1960s.
As in 1967, the immediate world food situation is, because of the depletion of stocks, much more than usually dependent on the outcome of the next harvest. And in the meantime, until the new North American harvests begin to become available around the middle of the year, there will be some difficulty in meeting any further large-scale emergency needs that might arise, in particular because of the shortage of shipping space.
At this point it is difficult to say anything about the 1973 crop prospects, except that a third successive year of widespread bad harvests in the developing countries would have no precedent in tile period since tile Second World War for which reasonably adequate statistics are available. India, however, remains a major question mark, and the possibility of a second poor monsoon cannot be ruled out.
Production should increase substantially in the developed countries in 1973. In the United States, where acreage and other restrictions, both obligatory and voluntary, have been in force for many years because of the lack of demand in relation to the potential production, tile voluntary restrictions are unlikely to be followed to any great extent in 1973, while farmers will also most probably cultivate the permitted acreage more core intensively as a result of the higher grain prices.
Any account of the immediate food situation is bound, like the above, to be based chiefly on percentage changes up or clown, and to make frequent reference to the weather. While such things are of little interest to the student of development, they rule the lives of countless people in the developing countries, especially those who still depend mainly on their own subsistence production.
Although the effect of the weather on agricultural production can be mitigated by the extension of irrigation, in most parts of the world it will always remain a major influence on the level of production from conventional agriculture. The best safeguards are to learn to predict bad harvests more reliably, and to hold adequate reserve stocks. There is a crying need for more effective financial and other assistance to enable developing countries to hold such stocks. The stocks built up in India in the last few years testify eloquently to their value -- without them the food situation in 1972 might well have been dangerous. At the world level, many proposals on international food reserves have been made since the Second World War, but none has got off the ground. We still depend almost entirely on the surplus stocks of grain that have arisen in North America, and on tile generosity of the individual governments concerned.
Even if we are only interested in long-term trends, the short-term fluctuations caused by the weather are significant. For every bad year like 1971 and 1972 all extra good year is needed to maintain the trend. The agricultural targets of DD2 .already call for all increase in production faster than has ever been sustained for more than a year or so in the developing countries, and as a result of the two disappointing harvests that have begun the decade, an even more rapid growth is now required if tile targets are to be met.
In accelerating the trend of production, the high-yielding varieties - and indeed improved seeds in general - will clearly have a central role. High-yielding varieties of rice and especially of wheat have been responsible for a large part of tile spectacular increases achieved between 1967 and 1970 in several countries in the Far East and a few in other regions. 'File small proportion of the crop area on which they are used so far is an indication at the same time of line potential for future expansion and of the difficulties involved. A number of internationally-sponsored research stations have recently been established with the main aim of widening their scope to crops other than grains and to rainfed as well as irrigated areas, but results will obviously take some time. In countries like India and Pakistan, where high-yielding varieties are in fairly widespread use, it is probable that the easy phase of their introduction, involving the more progressive farmers with good access to credit and extension, may already be over, so that future progress will be more difficult.
The success of tile high-yielding varieties depends on many other things as well, but above all on adequate fertilizer application. The present shortage and high price of fertilizers may therefore cause difficulties in the short run. There will inevitably be sonic further delay before the excess manufacturing capacity closed down in recent years can be put back into production, and prices resume the long-term downward trend that has resulted from technological progress in the industry. The importance of the small farmer.
Much of the effort required from governments in agricultural development concerns tile improvement of the institutional framework in which farmers live and work - land tenure systems, co-operatives and other farmers' organizations, credit, extension and training services, marketing systems for both agricultural products and essential inputs, and price policies. Progress in many of these fields involves a long period of time for the execution of the necessary measures and even longer for their results to be apparent.
They are of crucial importance not only in providing farmers with tile incentive and the means to increase their production, but also in determining how and by whom the increase is obtained and thus whose income is thereby raised. Agriculture is not just an industry producing food and raw materials; it also furnishes the livelihood of most of the people in the Third World and must continue to do so for many years to come Changing tile present nutritional Situation, in which even the mental development of millions of children is irreversibly damaged by lack of protein, is much less a question of further technological breakthroughs than of raising the incomes of poor people, of whom the poorest are the farmers of the developing countries.
In many of these countries the greater part of marketed agricultural production still comes from a small number of comparatively large-scale farmers who obtain most of the cash income in agriculture. High-yielding varieties are sometimes accused of mainly benefiting these farmers but are themselves inherently neutral regarding scale of production. Where their benefits have gone chiefly to such farmers it is because of traditional biases in the land tenure system and in credit, extension and other services, which governments could remedy.
Greater participation by small farmers in the expansion of production is the surest way to maximize employment opportunities in agriculture. This is crucial not only because of the predominant role of the rural sector in employment in the developing countries today, but also because in countries with inefficient tax systems the promotion of employment has an especially important role in the redistribution of income. The current employment crisis in tile Third World could cause such social unrest and administrative disruption as to jeopardize the achievement of the technological possibilities for agricultural production that have recently so greatly improved.
These are only a few of the challenges facing the governments of the developing countries if the DD2 agricultural targets are to be met, and met in such a way as to maximize the effect on human welfare. But perhaps the greatest failure in DD2 so far is by tile rich countries in respect of development aid and trade liberalization. Both these questions vitally affect the agricultural development possibilities of the Third World, because of the employment and incomes generated by production for export and the foreign exchange needed to import fertilizers and capital goods.
Agriculture's poor start to the second development decade might yet prove a blessing in disguise if it stimulates the necessary action by the governments of both developed and developing countries to avert further short-term food crises.