Last year, for the third year in four, world per-capita grain production fell. Even more disturbing in a world where people still go hungry, at 294 kilograms, last year’s per capita grain yield was the lowest in more than 30 years. Indeed, the global grain harvest has not met demand for 4 years, causing governments and food companies to mine stocks of these commodities that they were holding in reserve.

Harvests of wheat, depicted here, globally fell 3 percent last year. Indeed, last year’s worldwide grain harvests were the smallest in more than 30 years. USDA

Various types of grain.

Industrial feedlots, like the one shown here, produce more than half the world’s chickens. Globally, farmers raised some 16 billion fowl last year. United Soybean Board

This is just one of the sobering observations about world food trends offered last week by researchers with the Worldwatch Institute, an Earth-resources think tank in Washington, D.C.

Each year, Worldwatch reads several key indicators of our planet’s environmental health. The organization’s latest 153-page almanac, Vital Signs 2003, issued May 22 in cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme, notes that production of the world’s three major cereals fell in absolute terms in 2002: wheat by 3 percent, to 562 million metric tons (Mt); corn by almost 2 percent, to 598 Mt; and rice by 2 percent, to 391 Mt. Together, these three crops make up 85 percent of the world’s grain harvest, notes Worldwatch’s Brian Halweil.

Throughout the early 1960s, world grain reserves were equal to at least 1 year’s global demand for these commodities. By last year, that excess had fallen to just 20 percent of what’s now consumed annually.

What makes these trends so dangerous, Halweil reports, is that despite increasing dietary diversity, most people around the world “still primarily eat foods made from grain.” Globally, people derive 48 percent of their calories from grain-based foods. Moreover, Halweil points out, grains–especially corn–serve as “the primary feedstock for industrial livestock production.”

Indeed, he told Science News Online, “livestock consume 35 percent of the world’s grain, over 90 percent of the soybeans, and millions of tons of other oilseeds, roots, and tubers each year.” In the United States, the share of these plant-based foods going to livestock is even higher: 50 percent of all grains (including 60 percent of corn) and virtually all soy.

Parched bread baskets

Drought in Australia and the United States last year explains much of the drop in world cereal harvests, Halweil says.

New data issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture flesh out the picture. They show that record or near-record droughts last year throughout much of the western and midwestern United States–the nation’s breadbasket and corn belt, respectively–accounted for shortfalls in wheat and corn. It was so bad throughout much of the West that earlier this month the USDA announced a new $53 million program to help farmers and ranchers mitigate the effect of drought. The initiative will provide money for implementing new water-conserving technologies and farming practices.

Agricultural economists see no sign that U.S. grain production will recover soon. A map in the USDA’s May 20 Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin depicts much of the intermountain West in the throes of “extreme drought” with large surrounding areas–spanning from Mexico to Canada and from Nevada through middle-Nebraska–in only a slightly better situation: suffering merely a “severe drought.”

Data reported in a May 1 water forecast by the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., show “spring and summer stream flows [at] less than 50 percent of average in parts of the Intermountain West.” Water reservoirs mirror the problem. Despite a cool, wet spring throughout much of the West, fall and winter drought conditions have left water supplies well below average–in some cases at half of average amounts–in many Western basins.

The bottom line: No one expects bumper grain crops even in the United States. Attaining just average yields may prove difficult.

Feed’s growing demand on grains

In a second Vital Signs 2003 report, Danielle Nierenberg highlights a related food trend, the world’s growing appetite for meat. Last year, livestock growers raised some 242 million metric tons of meat. That’s five times what was produced in 1950 and double the yield in 1977.

Because meat production is relatively expensive–it requires 11 to 17 calories of feed to produce each calorie of beef, pork, or chicken–wealthy industrialized countries have led in demand for these foods. But Nierenberg reports that “two-thirds of the gains in meat consumption in 2002 occurred in developing countries, where urbanization, rising incomes, and the globalization of trade are changing diets.” In fact, she finds, developing countries have recently surpassed industrialized ones as producers of meat by total weight.

Still, there’s a huge disparity in the amounts of meat consumed per capita in rich and poor countries. In industrial nations, the average person eats some 80 kilograms per year–or 2.8 times that in the developing world. Most people eat pork, which accounts for 38 percent of world meat production, followed by poultry at 30 percent and beef at 25 percent.

To help raise some 5 billion hoofed and 16 billion winged animals for meat, farmers have increasingly turned to raising animals in factorylike conditions. Today, industrial feedlots account for 43 percent of the world’s beef and more than 50 percent of all pork and poultry. These confined setups also concentrate the noise, stink, and wastes associated with livestock into industrial operations. As unpopular as these are, they will probably dominate world meat production if it continues to grow. And the United Nations projects that it will grow, to 300 Mt by 2020.

Nevertheless, many people of the world won’t have the luxury of choosing between grains or meats, even by 2020. Today, Halweil notes, more than 800 million people regularly go to bed hungry–a number that’s greater than 2.5 times the combined population of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. It’s tempting to speculate that if humanity ate less meat, there would be more grain available to feed these people, Halweil says. However, he says, “you can’t necessarily make that leap,” since most hunger today stems not from a shortage of food as much as a shortage of funds to pay for it.

On the other hand, Halweil notes that there is one food for which the industrialized world’s consumption directly robs the developing world: fish. Recent reports have chronicled how overfishing by commercial fleets are decimating fish stocks around the world. “Because fishing is really a global industry–that is, you have American, Japanese, and Norwegian ships crisscrossing the globe and plucking fish from all over the planet,” Halweil says, “meeting the demands of diners in New York or Tokyo can mean there’s less available for someone in Bangkok or Bombay.”

“I think the take-home message” on worldwide production and consumption patterns for grain and meat, Nierenberg says, is that people in the industrial world “are overconsuming and setting a bad example.”

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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