FOR FIVE DAYS LAST WEEK, the politics of food, population, and the environment was played out in Rome. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a branch of the United Nations, convened a World Food Summit. It was rather like a sequel to the 1994's U.N. Population Conference, held in Cairo. Tales of apocalypse and planetary devastation abounded. Fiction was the order of the day.
In the Third World, the rate of population growth has been decreasing for nearly 30 years. And there is no evidence to suggest imminent famine. On the contrary, calories available to the average Third World resident have risen by about a third since 1960. Diets have improved, also: There have been increases of about 60 percent in vegetable-oil consumption and about 50 percent in animal-based protein (e.g., milk, meat, eggs, and cheese). What famines we have seen in recent decades have been more a matter of abhorrent politics than of food production.
In all, we are feeding twice as many people around the globe today as in 1960 -- and, again feeding them better. And we are doing it with the same 6 million square miles of cropland that farmers used in 1960. How so? The " Green Revolution" produced advances in fertilizers, pesticides, and seed genetics, which resulted in higher crop yields. Without these higher yields, we would be cropping from 12 million to 18 million square miles of land (equivalent to the entire continent of Africa) with severe environmental and land-use consequences.
Strangely, however, the FAO has never really conceded the importance of high-yield farming. It virtually ignored the Green Revolution during the 1970s. Instead, it was hip-deep in the cartel game, trying to suppress gains in farm productivity. Today, the FAO still works to control supply -- this time in the name of environmentalism.
"Sustainable agriculture" is all the rage now, the politically correct term for farming without benefit of chemicals. This is a practice that, its name notwithstanding, can neither preserve the environmental nor feed people. It simply reduces crop yields, meaning that more land must be used to keep production the same. And because additional farmland is unlikely to come from the razing of urban areas, a large-scale adoption of "organic" techniques to nourish coming generations would certainly mean the loss of wildlife habitat - - as much as 20 million to 30 million square miles, or an area the size of the Americas and Europe combined.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that environmentalists are pursuing population control with new vigor. As Jane Fonda put it in her role as President Clinton's "goodwill ambassador" to the U.N. Population Fund, "The controversy around contraception and abortion made it politically easier to speak and organize around air pollution, deforestation, toxic waste, and biodiversity while ignoring the role our won burgeoning species plays in all of this." But, pace Ms. Fonda, the real problem lies not with overpopulation, but rather with environmentalism's self-defeating opposition to chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
A call for population control is a logical extension of the environmentalist belief (or claim) that pesticides are, by definition, harmful. But the National Academy of Sciences begs to differ: Its research arm has just released a two-year report that reaffirms a long-known truth: The proper use of pesticides poses no threat. The report goes so far as to state that "it is plausible that naturally occurring chemicals present in food pose a greater cancer risk than synthetic chemicals."
Even so, bogus propaganda about agricultural chemicals persists. And the anti-pesticide and other enthusiasms have sparked a powerful, far-reaching political effort. Warren Christopher, the outgoing secretary of state, recently announced that U.S. foreign policy will include environmentalist- inspired initiatives like a U.N. push for wider pesticide bans. Timothy Wirth, undersecretary of state for global affairs, worried during pre-Rome hearings that population growth is "a long-term prospect which is indeed very daunting" (despite the fact that growth rates are slowing). President Clinton himself, in an address to the U.N. General Assembly, declared, "To ensure a healthier and more abundant world, we simply must slow the world's explosive growth in population."
So environmentalism has moved by beyond concern over chemicals to alarmism about human reproduction -- in non-Western cultures especially. Which returns us to the food summit and its misdirected, if not scandalous, population- control thrust: Whether or not the world becomes more populous, we still must have high-yield farming, and more of it.
Without such farming, the danger we face is not overpopulation or famine -- it is the loss of critical wildlife habitat. India, for example, has begun to take one-third of its dairy-cattle fodder from its forests, thereby robbing biodiversity. Indonesia is clearing tropical forest to grow low-yielding soybeans for chicken feed; it also plans to drain one of the world's largest freshwater wetlands for rice production. Fragile tropical-forest land, when assailed by "sustainable agriculture," suffers as much as ten times the soil erosion of the average American farm.
To satisfy the world's food demand in the next century, we must rely primarily on two things: enlightened farming and liberal trade policies (fertile cropland being unevenly distributed and nutritional self-sufficiency eluding many nations). Environmentalists, though, tend to oppose a broader trade as detrimental to traditional farmers, and their hostility to high- yield innovation is unrelenting -- even though such innovation is necessary to spare environmentally sensitive land.
It is amazing but true: The environmental movement's very own agenda stands as a threat to the earth's ecology. And squeals about population at Roman conclaves are no more than diversions from that fact.
Dave Juday is a businessman who exports food and agricultural products. He also serves as an adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.