HISTORICALLY, EACH MAJOR INHABITED region of the earth has produced its own food supply, and generally, agricultural production has kept pace with population growth. As populations have grown, however, crop failure from drought, flood, or whatever cause, in a given region necessarily affects increasing numbers of people. Estimates are that somewhat less than 2 million humans starved to death in the 17th century, 10 million in the 18th century, 25 million in the 19th century, and perhaps 12 million thus far in the 20th century. Were it not for improved communications, early warnings, the remarkable productivity of North American agriculture, and a worldwide food distribution capability, agriculture in the 20th century might well fail to keep pace with the world population growth of 2 percent per year, and major regional crop failures could now claim more lives than at any time in the past. We have entered a period of great international anxiety about the world's ability to feed its growing population. In 1972, the world food situation was transformed from one of food surpluses and low prices to one of relative food scarcity and high prices. This rapid reversal has raised again a wave of widespread food, population pessimism similar to that which has swept over the world several times since Thomas Malthus wrote his influential essay in 1789. A wide spectrum of opinion exists about the causes of this rapid change in the world food situation and its likely development in the future. One view is that we have reached the limit of the world's ability to feed even our present numbers adequately. Another view is that the events of the early 1970s signal a fundamental shift in the structure of the world's food economy that has led to a period of more or less chronic scarcity and high food prices. The soaring demand for food, spurred on by both continuing population growth and rising affluence, has begun to outrun the productive capacity of the world's farmers and fishermen. If this is the case, the limits to expansion of our food supply will require efforts to reduce consumption by the world's rich to feed the world's poor. A third opinion is that although the situation will be precarious for the next year or two, the factors that combined to cause it can be overcome. In this view, to which I subscribe, food production during the next decade will keep a half a step ahead of population growth, but there will be times and places of critical shortage. This last view is corroborated by a recent United Nations study, a study by the economic research service of the United States Department of Agriculture and a committee of the National Academy of Sciences and National Science Foundation, which I chaired. This committee considered the primary issue in balancing the food-population equation is an early reduction in the population growth rate and the attainment of population equilibrium as soon as possible. The factors that influence the population-food balance may be grouped into those relating to population, to agricultural resources, and to the more general features of the world food system. The main purpose of this article is to describe briefly some of these factors and what I believe can be done about correcting a potentially explosive situation.

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