– People require food, with more people requiring more food and less people requiring less food. Despite that self-evident relationship, most governments appear reluctant to accept the intimate link between the supplies of food and the numbers of people and continue calling for the further growth of their populations.
The world’s population of approximately 8,000,000,000, or more than double its size at the start of the Green Revolution in the mid-1960s, is again facing a food crisis across many countries and areas. And that food crisis is expected to worsen in the near term.
The food crisis in dozens of countries, which are located primarily in Africa and Asia, is largely due to the three Cs: conflict, climate change, and COVID-19. Also, the recent conflict in Ukraine due to Russia’s military invasion has further exacerbated the food crisis.
As a result of the conflict in Ukraine, a growing number of governments are erecting new barriers to stop the exports of food products and other important commodities at their borders. Those barriers are expected to worsen the food crisis with shortages and higher prices for a variety of goods in many food insecure countries.
Today an estimated 800 million people, or 10 percent of the world’s population, are hungry. Also, projections show that the world is not on track to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030, i.e., Sustainable Development Goal 2.
The future growth of world population, which is currently increasing by approximately 80 million per year, is expected to be concentrated in regions that contain most of the countries suffering from hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition.
Of the expected growth of the world’s population of nearly 600 million over the next eight years, Africa, much of which is dependent on imported food, accounts for 47 percent of that demographic growth, followed by Asia at 43 percent (Figure 1).
Moreover, the projected percentage increases in the populations of Africa’s sixteen food insecure hotspot countries are among the world’s highest and well above the global average. By 2030 many of the populations of those African countries are expected to increase by no less than 25 percent.
The current population of Niger, for example, is expected to increase by 34 percent over the next eight years, i.e., from 26 million to 35 million. In contrast, the projected increase of world population of 7 percent over those eight years is a fraction of the rates of Africa’s food insecure hotspot countries (Figure 2).
The expected population growth of food insecure countries by mid-century is even more striking. Whereas world population is projected to increase by about 20 percent by 2050, the populations of some African food insecure hotspot countries are expected to double in size by mid-century. A particularly rapid rate of future demographic growth is the population of Niger, which is expected to increase from its current 26 million to 66 million by mid-century.
Another African food insecure hotspot country whose population is expected to double in size is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, increasing from 95 million today to 195 million by 2050. The African country with the largest population, Nigeria, is also projected to increase substantially from its current 217 million to 401 million by 2050, thereby displacing the United States as the world’s third largest population.
Outside of Africa six additional countries, which have been affected greatly by armed conflicts and violence, are also considered food insecure hotspot countries. Those countries are Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen in Asia and Haiti and Honduras in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Following the Green Revolution in the late 1960s, global food production has outpaced the rapid growth of world population during the second half of the 20th century. World population has more than tripled since 1950, from 2.5 billion to 8 billion today.
At present, approximately half of the planet’s habitable land is now being used for the production of food, which accounts for an estimated 70 percent of freshwater consumption. That vital human activity has important consequences for the planet, including contributing to biodiversity loss, pollution, deforestation, and soil degradation as well as to greenhouse gas emissions.
Part of the responses to those consequences for the planet include reducing meat consumption and moving the world’s population to a more plant-based diet. In addition to the improvements to human health, eating mostly plant-based foods would contribute to lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduced animal waste.
In many parts of the world, especially those food insecure hotspots noted above, the effects of climate change and environmental degradation are greatly impacting the production, availability, and distribution of food with droughts, floods, high temperatures, wildfires, desertification, pests, rise in sea levels, etc.
In addition to aiming to increase the supply of food and making healthy diets affordable and accessible for populations with low household purchasing power, greater efforts are needed to reduce the overall demand for food by stabilizing the size of populations.
In addition to reducing high morbidity and mortality rates, governments should endeavor to reduce high fertility rates. Expediting the demographic transition in countries with high death and birth rates would contribute considerably to reducing the future sizes of those populations and thereby the projected demand for additional food.
For example, Africa’s future population, which has increased six-fold since 1950, could be markedly less than currently projected if the continent’s demographic transition is expedited. If the future fertility rates of African countries were to follow the United Nation’s low variant projection instead of its medium variant, the population of Africa would be 200 million less by 2050 and more than a billion less by 2100 (Figure 3).
Reductions in the rapid growth of populations in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere will certainly not resolve the problems of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. Other major challenges need to be addressed, including conflict, climate change, and COVID-19.
However, it is also certainly the case that lower rates of demographic growth will lead to fewer additional people in the future. Such demographic reductions will in turn lead to reduced future demand for food.
As stated at the outset, the relationship between food and people is self-evident. Namely, people require food, with more people requiring more food and less people requiring less food.
It’s well past the time for governments to embrace the relationship between food and people. To do so entails governments adopting comprehensive policies and implementing effective programs aimed at reducing high rates of population growth and stabilizing the size of their populations.
Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.”