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"No tragedy is more wounding than the look of despair in the eyes of a starving child." So said our Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, on November 5, 1974, at the opening of a World Food Conference in Rome.

He went on: "Today we must proclaim a bold objective - that within a decade no child will go to bed hungry."A decade and a half passed and worldwide malnutrition and starvation have not lessened. Things may even be worse. The world's population has grown by 29 percent since 1974 - more than a billion people. And the poorest nations have grown most.

Now another conference, at Bellagio, Italy, has come to the same high-minded conclusion: We must eliminate hunger from the world. The experts no longer dream of 100 percent elimination of hunger in 10 years; they will settle for a 50 percent victory. But is that realistic enough?

Dreams are fine, but deeds count more. What actions does the Bellagio Declaration demand? Principally three: (1) Improve Third World agriculture; (2) bring food to the poor; and (3) improve the health of mothers and children.

The first is more difficult than most people realize. As for the second, it threatens to make a "basket-case" of a poor country; this is not what poor people want: They want to be self-sufficient. The third measure seems the most humane of all - but it helps only for a moment.

A really poor country is already overpopulated in terms of the physical and political realities of its situation. Helping its population to grow faster by gifts of food and medicine will make the next generation even more in need of outside help.

Poor countries are supported by three production factors: crop land, pasture land and forest land. Crop land produces needed food directly. Pasture land produces food indirectly. Forest land produces the fuel needed to cook the food.

In a poor country all three production factors are overstressed by too large a population. If outsiders do nothing, the situation will get worse. Unwise intervention will make it worsen faster.

Saving lives increases the environmental stresses imposed by overpopulation. Deforestation and soil erosion are speeded up. It takes decades - sometimes centuries - to replace soil and forests. Grazing animals have less to eat, farmland shrinks, and some formerly forested hillsides may turn into gullied "badlands" that can never be reclaimed. Life-destroying floods in the lowlands become worse.

Photos of malnourished mothers and starving children are dreadful to see. But "time has no stop," and the picture presented by even more misery in the future will be worse.

Typically, a poor country grows four times faster than a rich country. Saving lives, without a reduction in birth rate, will destroy a poor country faster.

Improving agriculture is the way to go, but this is not easy. We know a lot about temperate-zone agriculture, but very little about in the tropics, where most desperately poor people live.

Agricultural experiment stations are good at finding ways to grow bigger crops; but most improvements take 20 years or more to achieve. There are few experiment stations in the tropics. There are even fewer tropical-agriculture scientists. With the best of luck, it takes one generation, sometimes two, to improve agriculture.

What fate is in store for the Bellagio Declaration of goals? Our best hope is that the Declaration will be ignored. There is only one real, though slender, possibility: to persuade a few poor nations to adopt birth control policies so strong that they slowly bring the population down to the carrying capacity of the land. Only if such policies are adopted by the poor nations themselves can rich nations be of any help.

(Biologist Garrett Hardin is the author of "Filters Against Folly.")