For centuries the Chinese have used an appropriate adage that can be given either as a curse or a blessing: "May you live in interesting times." It is clear to us that someone has put just such a curse and blessing on humankind today, and we are reaping the harvests of both.

Never in the history of the human race have so many people been so well off. Our capacity for rapid and inexpensive transportation and communications is expanding dramatically and for much of the world's population, food has never been more abundant and more affordable. Modern medicine can at times perform miracles. On average, we are living longer and healthier lives. Any unbiased study will indicate that on balance, human drudgery has been greatly reduced, and that we have more time and other resources for the pursuit of leisure, cultural, and civic activities. In OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, advanced education is available to more young people than ever before. Clothes, watches, cameras, and even cars have become expendable items of consumption. Not long ago, they were passed from one generation to the next! But the great material advances of the 20th century have not been equitably shared. We have the dilemma of great wealth and excessive consumption in the OECD countries and extreme poverty, underproduction, and overexploitation of the environment in the less developed countries. These diverging welfare streams are leading to abundant living standards coexisting with lives of crushing poverty and desperation.

We all will pay a price for such disparities in income and well-being. For one thing, hungry nations are unstable nations, which become fertile breeding grounds for violence and terrorism, on both a local and international scale. Lest we forget, in the midst of global plenty, more than 800 million people still go to bed hungry every night (Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO], 2003). Extreme poverty is also no friend of the environment. Indeed, the most serious environmental damage occurring in the world at present is both rural and poverty based.

Over the past 50 years, world population has grown from 2.5 billion to 6.2 billion people. At present, some 79 million people join us on spaceship Earth each year, and largely in countries that are too poor to provide the newborn with adequate food, health care, education, and employment, let alone a vision of a better life tomorrow. Feeding the growing world population of the 20th century has been a challenging proposition. However, farmers and ranchers — and the research and production infrastructure that supports them — have proven to be up to the task. Since 1950, world cereal production has increased threefold to 2 billion metric tons annually, with only a 10% increase in land area (Figure 3.1). This has resulted in a 20% increase in per capita food production and more than a 50% decline in real food prices (FAO, 2003).

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