2004 Grain Harvest Unlikely to Meet World Needs

Falling water tables and higher temperatures will make it difficult for farmers to close the gap in the world grain needs. Compiled by staff

Published on: May 6, 2004

Economists are predicting record levels for harvest this year, but it won't be enough to close the gap in world grain shortfalls with 6.4 billion people and more than 1 billion livestock to feed.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, says the four harvest shortfalls have dropped world carryover stocks of grain to the lowest level in 30 years, amounting to only 59 days of consumption. Wheat and corn prices are at 7-year highs. Rice prices are at 5-year highs. "In addition to the usual uncertainties farmers face, they must now contend with two newer trends—falling water tables and rising temperatures," Brown says.

Maintaining the current precarious balance between production and consumption will require this year's grain harvest to grow by 120 million tons. "But modestly boosting food security will require a total gain of 150 million tons." Brown explains, "Unfortunately, the chances of increasing it by even 120 million tons appear to be less than one in ten."

Combining the estimated increases of 35 million tons for wheat, 12 million tons for rice, 10 million tons for corn, and 3 million tons for other grains gives an increase of 60 million tons over last year's harvest. "This is an improvement, but it would still be 60 million tons short of what we need to close the gap," he says. "And if we include the goal of modestly rebuilding stocks, we will be short by 90 million tons."

Brown says the risk is that a year from now, lower grain stocks and soaring food prices could destabilize governments in low-income grain-importing countries on a scale that would disrupt global economic progress. "If this lowers the Nikkei stock index, the Dow Jones 500, and other key indicators, we may realize that our economic future depends on a worldwide effort to stabilize population, raise water productivity, and stabilize climate—and at wartime speed."