Population-induced climate changes and long-term soil erosion may perpetuate for years the African famine responsible for up to a million deaths in Ethiopia in 1984, a research group said Saturday.
The Worldwatch Institute, in its annual "State of the World" report for 1985, called the starvation in Africa a forewarning that the Earth's resources may be incapable of supporting a global population approaching 5 billion people.
"A scenario is unfolding in Africa where population growth may be driving a climatic change leading to a reduction in rainfall and, ultimately, food production," the Washington-based institute said.
Worldwatch President Lester Brown said that only a combined tree-planting, soil-conservation and family-planning effort "equal to the Allied powers' mobilization in World War II" may reverse what he called the drying out of Africa and its adverse effect on climate.
'A Human Drama'
"If we're right, and I'm afraid we probably are," Brown said in an interview, "we may be on the edge of a human drama on a scale that we've never seen before. There are no developments in prospect on either the agriculture or the family-planning side of the food-population equation that will arrest the slide."
The pessimistic tone of the institute's report is in sharp contrast to the generally positive theme of its first "State of the World" study a year ago.
"There's reason to be gloomy," Brown said. "If rainfall is declining, things are going to get pretty difficult to manage. I don't think the world quite understands what that means. It's going to require a lot more than the World Bank just increasing its lending 30%."
The 300-page study said world leaders, particularly U.S. officials, have been "lulled into a false state of security" by reduced oil use, slower population growth in China and grain surpluses in some countries.
Tripling of Crop Land
A doubling of world food production, achieved largely through a ninefold increase in fertilizer use and a tripling of irrigated crop land over the past 25 years, has masked the effect of soil erosion, the researchers said.
Based on new government figures from the United States, Canada and China, the institute increased its estimate of world topsoil lost to erosion from 22.7 billion tons in its last report to 25.4 billion tons this year.
The ability of the world to feed its population also is reflected in 10% per-capita reductions in worldwide fish harvests since 1979 and beef production since 1976.
There also have been some positive developments. The researchers cited China's success in reducing population growth through its one-child program, begun in the late 1970s, while greatly increasing its food production.
Family Planning Difficult
But the researchers, citing as an example the Chinese preference for sons, noted that family planning through contraceptives is politically and socially difficult in some cultures.
It also is expensive. Reducing the size of families to 2.4 children per couple by the year 2000 in Third World nations such as Mexico, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Bangladesh would cost $7.6 billion a year, according to a World Bank estimate.
"In some countries," the Worldwatch researchers said, "the only alternative may be an Ethiopian-type situation where population growth is achieved through hunger-induced rises in death rates."
The Worldwatch Institute is a Washington-based research organization that studies natural resource problems on a global scale and publicizes its findings.