Good news on the food front

As you might know from reading past
issues of Population News, agricultural production in the United States
and the world has fallen over the past few years, leading some groups
such as WorldWatch Institute to predict we are finally at the beginning
of the end of cheap, abundant food. Critics like myself, however, contend
that such oscillations are temporary and an inherent part of agricultural
markets which correct themselves.

New forecasts by the United States
Department of Agriculture sheds yet more light on the debate, and the
results aren’t good for the gloom-and-doom crowd.

A few weeks ago the USDA announced
that the U.S. soybean crop would set a record, forecasting 1.525 billion
bushels of soybeans would be produced with record exports of 2.9 billion
pounds of soy oil and near-record levels of 7.9 million short tons of
soy meal exported in the coming year.

Now the USDA reports that American
farmers are planting a record 80.8 million acres of corn — the most since
1985 — but only 67 million acres of wheat, the lowest since 1988. The
USDA expects that overall US wheat and corn exports will decline as worldwide
demand for US agricultural exports decline and consequently prices for
wheat, corn and soybeans should decline by 20 to 90 cents a bushel from
last year’s crop.

What exactly is going on here?
Well, don’t you know, it turns out people do respond to market prices
after all. Following the relatively low levels of world production of
corn and soybean the past few years, farmers around the world have apparently
switched large amounts of land to growing corn and soybean. South American
exports of soybean and corn are expected to be a major source cutting
into US exports.

Contrary to a WorldWatch report
that grain prices were headed inevitably up, in fact the opposite has
happened. The cost of a bushel of wheat on the Chicago Board of Trade
recently fell to $2.9850,a 4-1/2 year low. A bushel of corn was up slightly
to $2.4950. Hardly the agricultural disaster predicted by WorldWatch.

Famine persists in Sudan

So world food prices are headed
down; then what is going on in Sudan? An Associated Press report says
over 350,000 Sudanese need immediate food relieve or they run the risk
of starvation. By August 1999 that number is expected to rise to 1.6 million.

Sudan has some of the best land
in the world for agriculture, so what’s the problem? An ongoing civil
war that has persisted in one form or another for almost 40 years. Northern
Sudan, which is primarily Arab and Muslim, is run by an Arab strongman.
Southern Sudan, which is predominantly Christian and animist, has been
fighting to gain its independence. Human rights violations have been common
on both sides.

In October 1996, one of the rebels,
Kerubino Kwanying Bol, switched sides and attacked the southern Bahr el
Ghazal. Kerubino subsequently switched sides again, back to the rebels,
and attacked government-held towns of Wau, Awiel and Gogrial.

The resulting devastation has led
farmers to abandon their crop land en masse as well as cut off supply
routes. As a result, Sudan is on the verge of yet another man-made famine.

Can OPEC stop tumbling oil prices?

OPEC nations concerned over the continuing low
market prices for oil met at the end of March to try to bolster prices
by cutting supply. Oil markets let out a collective yawn over the cartel’s
efforts.

In a Reuters story, Steve Wyatt, managing
director of U.S. Petroleum Ltd., noted there is an enormous barrier to
OPEC’s supply cutting efforts. “We are at a 20-year high in stocks
of products and crude oil,” Wyatt said. In order for OPEC to have
any upward effect on oil prices any production quotas would have to be
strictly maintained. Unfortunately OPEC doesn’t have much of a history
in recent years of getting its members to stick to such quotas. For example,
Venezuela’s OPEC quota is 2.583 million barrels of oil per day, but it
pumps nearly 3.2 million barrels per day.

That is unlikely to change any. Two key oil
producing nations, Indonesia and Iran are both unlikely to maintain their
quotas even if they do give public lip service to them — both nations
need the currency garnered by oil sales. In addition Iraq will sell every
bit of oil the United Nations will let it, and Iraqi oil output is only
likely to increase in the foreseeable future.

The bottom line — cheap oil and gasoline are
going to remain a reality for the near term, though gasoline prices may
begin to rise to moderately higher levels in midsummer.

North Korea reaches food agreement, declares martial law

On March 27 Reuters reported that Red
Cross officials from North and South Korea reached an agreement on monitoring
of relief aid, clearing the way for a 50,000 ton food shipment to famine-plagued
North Korea. The food will be shipped into North Korea beginning later
this month and extending through May 1998.

The main sticking point was South Korean concerns
that food aid would be used to feed North Korea’s military rather than
starving civilians. No details on what sort of monitoring scheme would
be used were offered.

A March 25 Agence France-Press report
claimed North Korean strongman Kim Il-Jong had imposed martial law and
was beginning a purge of military and political rivals after a shooting
incident between police and the military on March.

Among those rumored to be arrested was Kim
Cong-U who had been charged with liberalizing North Korea’s centrally
planned economy.

It’s too bad Kim Il-Jong doesn’t spend as much
effort feeding his people as he does protecting his privileged political
position.

Strip-till farming gains support

In the past I’ve mentioned the benefits of no-till
farming which helps cut down on soil erosion. On the downside, however,
are potentially lower yields. Well, according to an Associated Press
report a University of Illinois researcher is exploring what he calls
strip tilling.

Wayne Pederson, a plant pathologist, says strip-tilling
involves tilling in strips that are only 7 inches wide while leaving the
rest of the field undisturbed. This combines the best of both worlds,
with tilling’s warmer and drier soil and no-till’s soil conservation.

“We’re basically finding strip-till is
a hybrid combination,” Pedersen said. “Within that 7-inch strip
it’s a tiled field. Between the 7-inch strips it’s no-tilled and you get
all the benefits of water conservation and erosion control that you’d
get with no-till.”

The practice has been in use in parts of Illinois
since the early 1990s, in some cases producing yields very close to what
would be expected from conventional tillage practices.

FAO regional conference for Africa

In February the 20th United Nations Food
and Agricultural Organization
regional conference for Africa took
place in Addis Ababa from Feb. 16-20. According to a Xinhua News Agency
report, the conference focused on improving African food security.

Speaking before the conference, Ethiopian
President Negasso Gidada said achieving food security should be the primary
goal of African governments. This view was echoed by Ahmed Haggag, assistant
secretary general of the Organization of African Unity, who said that
agricultural progress is the key to long term general prosperity in Africa.

FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf called
for increased irrigation projects.

“There can be no food security in
Africa without controlled utilization and conservation of water resources
and without intensifying production systems,” Diouf said. “Irrigation
is an important element of security in the face of widely fluctuating
rainfall. It is also an ingredient of intensification considering that
irrigated land is twice as productive as rainfed land.”

The FAO meanwhile approved 18 investment
projects in Africa in 1997 for a total cost of $478 million dollars, and
has spent close to $1.8 billion in the region since 1995.