Population Matters

Food: the Population Connection

December 8th, 2010

With the world on the verge of yet another food crisis, it’s no secret that projected population growth poses an enormous challenge to the world’s ability to satisfy the world’s growing appetite for food.  All too often, however, studies assume that little or nothing can be done to affect population growth. Many experts accept, as a given, that world population, presently 6.9 billion, will rise–as projected by the U.N.’s medium variant–to between 9.1 and 9.2 billion by 2050.

A new report from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), however, makes clear that much depends on whether population by 2050 is on the low side (7.9 billion) or the high side (10.4 billion) of U.N. population projections. The report, Food Security, Farming, and Climate Change:  Scenarios, Results, and Policy Options, indicates that:

The challenge of reaching sustainable food security and delivering on it through 2050 is daunting. Our starting point, in 2010, is a world with unacceptable levels of poverty and deprivation, as is clear from the 2010 report on the Millennium Development Goals. Progress will be made more difficult by two looming challenges: a growing world population and increasingly negative productivity effects from climate change.

While food production kept pace with, and at times exceeded, population growth in the last century, satisfying the world’s demand for food is getting tougher and tougher. The report warns that higher food prices are here to stay:

Rising prices signal the existence of imbalances in supply and demand and growing resource scarcity, driven either by demand factors such as growing population and income, or by supply factors such as reduced productivity due to climate change. Unlike much of the 20th century, when real agricultural prices declined, our analysis suggests that real agricultural prices will likely increase between now and 2050, the result of growing incomes and population as well as the negative productivity effects of climate change.

 The report, however,  makes clear that future prices will vary significantly depending on how fast population grows:  

 …unlike in the 20th century when real agricultural prices declined (see Figure 2.1), the price scenarios in this report show substantial increases between 2010 and 2050. The price increases vary from 31.2 percent for rice in the optimistic scenario to 100.7 percent for maize in the pessimistic scenario (see Table 2.2). The pessimistic scenario has the highest price increases, as high population and low income growth rates combine to increase the demand for staple foods.

The IFPRI report, which was prepared for the climate change conference now under way in Cancun, is a warning signal. It helps to illuminate the challenges posed by population growth and climate change, but it’s not the last word.  Forecasting food production and food commodity prices is an inherently risky business.  Ten years ago, many experts were confident that we could, by 2015, reduce the number of chronically hungry people in the world by half, but last year the number of hungry people in the world crossed the one billion mark for the first time in history.  Four years ago, virtually no one was predicting that the prices of corn and wheat would double in the next two years, and that rice prices would triple, but they did. In June of this year, with ample food reserves, no one was anticipating that wheat and corn prices would jump by 50 percent or more in the next four months, but they did.  

While the IFPRI report did not recommend an increase in the level of international family planning assistance, it’s difficult not to draw that conclusion.  When it comes to food security, population growth is a not-to-be-forgotten variable. While we urgently need to devote more resources to boosting agricultural productivity and combating climate change, we also need to expand family planning services and information.  

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that it would cost just $3.6 billion a year more to provide family planning services to the estimated 215 million women in the world who want to avoid a pregnancy, but who are not using a modern method of birth control.  One of the many reasons for doing so, as highlighted by the IFPRI report, is the contribution that such an investment would make to food security and the ability of low-income countries to adapt to the anticipated effects of  climate change.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

One Response to “Food: the Population Connection”

  1. Robert Engelman Says:

    Thanks for posting this, Bob. I wasn’t aware of the IFPRI report. It’s great that they are using the three main UN population projection variants (low, medium, high) and the latest ones (2008) in their analysis. That’s something other researchers have been doing for years, but most are in the population field. Also interest that they are stressing the importance of variable population growth among other key factors affecting food prices.

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