Population Matters

World Population Day: Are We Losing the Race to Feed?

July 8th, 2010

This Sunday marks the 21st observance of World Population Day. The theme for this year is the importance of data collection.  Good demographic data are, after all, critically important in planning schools, health systems and public transportation, and essential in monitoring our progress with respect to health, nutrition, and the elimination of severe poverty.

World Population Day, however, is also a time to reflect on population growth and its implications.  There are many reasons why population growth is a matter of global concern, but the greatest of all them is the never ending race to feed.  In the 20th century, world population quadrupled and so did food production.  Indeed, the number of undernourished in the world declined between 1969, when Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, and 1996.  But since then, we have been losing ground in the race to feed. As the FAO reports:

2009 has been a devastating year for the world’s hungry, marking a significant worsening of an already disappointing trend in global food security since 1996. The global economic slowdown, following on the heels of the food crisis in 2006–08, has deprived an additional 100 million people of access to adequate food. There have been marked increases in hunger in all of the world’s major regions, and more than one billion people are now estimated to be undernourished.

A decade ago hopes were still high that expanded food production in developing countries and improvements in food distribution would banish global hunger by 2015. The optimism, however, is beginning to fade.  The FAO reported last year that global food production will have to increase by 75 percent by 2050 to keep pace with the world’s growing appetite for food, and crop production in the developing world will have to double to avert food shortages. The race to feed the world’s hungry is not yet won.

There are, in fact, many reasons why food production could expand in the decades ahead, most notably the intensified use of irrigation, hybrid seeds, fertilizers, and mechanized machinery.  But, as the same time, there are a host of obstacles to be overcome, including desertification, the erosion of topsoil, the rising costs of fuel and fertilizers, increasing water scarcity, the loss of farmland, the harmful effects of climate change, and even the return of wheat rust as a threat to world wheat production.

Last month, the Strategic Foresight Group, a think tank based in India, released a report titled ‘The Himalayan Challenge: Water Security in Emerging Asia,” which warned that:

The cumulative effect of water scarcity, glacial melting, disruptive precipitation patterns, flooding, desertification, pollution, and soil erosion will be a massive reduction in the production of rice, wheat, maize and fish. Both India and China will face drop in the yield of wheat and rice anywhere between 30-50% by 2050. At the same time demand for food grains will go up by at least 20%. As a net result, China and India alone will need to import more than 200-300 million tonnes of wheat and rice, driving up the international prices of these commodities in the world market. This will have adverse impact on the poor all over the world.

Given the inherent uncertainty in climate forecasts, SFG’s report may overstate the challenge, but its findings cannot be easily dismissed.  The report was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and prepared by 25 experts from Bangladesh, China, India and Nepal.  Nor, as reported recently in The Economist, is it easy to dismiss the growing concerns that wheat rust, a crop killing fungus, is rebounding and may soon threaten some of the major wheat growing regions, including the Punjab and Australia.

With world population still on track to reach 9 billion or higher by mid-century, World Population Day 2010 is a good time to reflect on whether we are losing the race to feed.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President



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