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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Staking out the State of the World

Air Date: Week of

Lester Brown of Worldwatch Institute gives a status report on the planet to host Steve Curwood. According to Worldwatch's annual report, State of the World, food production — from grains to seafood — is down and declining still further.


CURWOOD: The 11th annual State of the World Report has just been released by the World Watch Institute in Washington. And as usual, this year's assessment is pretty gloomy. Lester Brown is the Institute's president and the book's chief author.

BROWN: One of these years, we'd like to publish a really upbeat State of the World Report, one that was just filled with good news. But unfortunately, that time has not come yet.

CURWOOD: Now, this year's bad news focuses on the tightening of the world food supply. Can you explain?

BROWN: What we've seen in recent months is a rather dramatic tightening of both seafood supplies and rice supplies. Rice, unlike the other two grains, is affected not only by the growing scarcity of land, but also the scarcity of fresh water that's emerging in many parts of the world.

CURWOOD: And what does this mean?

BROWN: This means that all the increases in output have to come from raising land productivity. And given that rice yields are already quite high in a number of Asian countries, this is becoming more difficult. The net result is that, over the last three years, world rice consumption has exceeded production. Stocks have been drawn down, and they are now down to the lowest level in some 20 years. This is why rice prices have doubled between the end of August and today.

CURWOOD: Now in the past, we've seen the price of grain double. In the 70s, for example, the price of wheat doubled. This didn't lead to a world food shortage, it just led to higher prices. Why should we be more concerned this time?

BROWN: The difference between the 70s and today is that in the 70s [there] was a great deal of unrealized production potential. Third World countries weren't using much fertilizer then. As the price of grain went up, they started using a lot more fertilizer and production responded. Today, there aren't that many things that farmers can do to get dramatic increases in production to bring prices back down. Water's becoming quite scarce throughout much of Asia. Land is scarce. And the use of additional fertilizer now is having a rather limited effect on production, compared with that of even 10 years ago?

CURWOOD: What's happening with seafood?

BROWN: The world fish catch, which increased more than four times from 1915 until 1989, has stopped growing. It's as simple as that. We appear to be pushing against the limits of oceanic fisheries. FAO says of the 17 major oceanic fisheries in the world, all are now being fished at or beyond capacity, and 9 are in a state of decline.

CURWOOD: And we're seeing a result in prices, you're saying.

BROWN: This is translating into substantial price rises. In this country, the rise in seafood prices over the last decade has been roughly double that for the other major sources of animal protein, such as beef or poultry or pork. We can probably handle that, because we spend such a small percentage of our income on food in this country. But in low-income countries, where people are spending 70% of their income on food, if the price of rice doubles, they're facing some serious belt-tightening. And belt-tightening for a lot of people who don't have any notches left.

CURWOOD: This is all a pretty bleak picture, Lester Brown. Is there any way out?

BROWN: Well, probably the most important thing we need to do now to arrest the decline in per capita supplies of seafood or rice or whatever, is to get serious about slowing population growth. Fortunately, we've just seen Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth announce that the US has adopted a goal of making sure that every woman in the world who wants access to family planning services will have it by the end of this decade. That is a goal that should have been adopted a long time ago, since there are still something like 100 million women in the world who want to limit the size of their families but lack access to the family planning services that would enable them to do so.

CURWOOD: Well I want to thank you. Lester Brown is president of the World Watch Institute in Washington and senior author of State of the World 1994, the World Watch Institute report on progress towards a sustainable society. Thanks for joining us.

BROWN: Okay, it's my pleasure, Steve.



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