Can the world feed 7 billion people?
This month, the world’s human population is said to have crossed the 7 billion mark.
This news produced lots of conferences, seminars and articles, on the question that is also the title of this blog post. So we thought it would be helpful to produce a digest of those articles:
- The UN forecasts that world population will rise to 9.3 billion in 2050 and surpass 10 billion by the end of this century. (See the UN stats on population)
- Many commentators have stressed that this is good news: around the world people are living longer, healthier, more productive lives. Thanks to the advances in public health, fewer people die prematurely, and we now have a world with 7 billion people with possibilities.
- The UN’s Population Fund also highlighted that on average, women now have fewer babies than ever before. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR – the average number of live births per woman over her lifetime) in OECD countries stands at around 1.74 (where 2.3 is the level needed to keep a population levels stable). The big news is that countries like China and India, where the TFR was 6.1 and 5.9 respectively in 1950, now have birth rates of 1.8 in China, and 2.6 in India.
(Look up your country’s population projections here). We should be speaking of “fertility decline”, therefore, in combination with population growth.
- As this excellent article on the BBC website argues, these statistics tend to fuel Malthusian doom scenarios in people’s minds. Thomas Malthus believed that humans would always reproduce faster than Earth’s capacity to feed them, and that it was better to let the poor starve – a theory the impact of which was felt during the great Irish Famine and bizarrely widespread, still today.
So the key points to take away from this month’s discussions about the growing world population are:
- The focus should not be on “population control”, but on addressing the fact that more than 215 million women worldwide who do not want to become pregnant have no access to modern methods of contraception.
- A growing world population does not mean more starvation. Hunger is mainly a political problem, and as Professor Conway argues in this excellent article, 80% of African farmers are smallholders with less than two hectares of land. They can only be innovative if they have access to inputs, either subsidised or at a cheap cost, and if they get a fair price for their products in the local or regional markets.
- If we want to increase global food production, technology is the last place to start looking for solutions. We should start with enabling the many small farmers.
- The world does produce enough food for everyone. (see these fact sheets).
- As Bryan Walsh writes in Time Magazine: “We could feed 7 billion, 8 billion, 9 billion and probably more — if we chose to do so.”
- Hunger is not caused by a lack of food, but by the fact that poor people cannot access sufficient, or sufficiently nutritious, food. (see this article and this blog post about the politics of Hunger)
- “The threat to human survival lies not in the shortage of space on our planet but in the shortage of justice in our political and economic systems.”
And this is where the main argument of the discussion should be made: While it is true that the biggest population growth happens in poor countries, it is the millions of people in rich countries that pose the biggest problems for the world.
As Paul Ehrlich (author of that Malthusian book, “The Population Bomb”) says in this article, if he were to write his book today,:
“I wouldn’t focus on the poverty-stricken masses. I would focus on there being too many rich people. It’s crystal clear that we can’t support seven billion people in the style of the wealthier Americans.”
Entry filed under: Development Effectiveness. Tags: 7 billion people, Africa, Agriculture, Aid, Effectiveness, empowerment, Family planning, Famine, Floods, Hunger, Malthus, MDGs, Millennium Development Goals, Overseas aid, Population, Population growth, Smart Aid, Starvation, UN, Women, Women's rights.