Planet, 16 March 2011
food prices raise spectre of Malthus
By John Bongaarts
the human family approaches 7 billion and as food prices rise,
the spectre of Malthus with his warning of widespread famine has
reappeared. Here the distinguished demographer, John Bongaarts,
argues that the poor of the world are, indeed, vulnerable unless
a greater effort is made to meet women's needs and slow population
have believed that humanity is doomed due to overpopulation and
overconsumption ever since economist and scholar Thomas Robert
Malthus forecasted this fate over two centuries ago. Conversely,
optimists have argued that technological innovation will improve
standards of living and that population growth is at most a minor
But, now, rising food costs have once again raised fears that
the population is outstripping the planet's food supplies. Although
the recent price spikes are partially the result of short-term
factors - droughts, floods, speculative investing, low reserves,
and hoarding- food prices are likely to remain high as rising
demand runs into supply constraints. While higher food prices
will have a negative effect everywhere, they will have a particularly
devastating impact on the poor, who already spend a large part
of their incomes on sustenance and will be forced to spend more.
On the supply
side, environmental constraints impede our ability to grow more
food. In much of the world the most productive land is already
being used for agriculture or covered by artificial structures;
the best river sites have been dammed; and the benefits of the
technological advances in agriculture production, known as the
Green Revolution, have been heavily exploited. Further, in many
densely populated countries water shortages are acute.
threat comes from rising energy prices. Energy is an integral
part of every step in the food production system - cultivation,
harvesting, transportation, refrigeration, packaging, and distribution.
Even some of fertilizers and pesticides are hydrocarbon-based;
consequently these products are becoming more costly as well.
Another restriction to our food supply is the recent diversion
of crops formerly meant for our dinner tables are now winding
up as biofuels.
measures such as cultivating more land, investing in agricultural
infrastructure and technology, and subsidizing farming inputs
such as fertilizer, pesticides, and water can help raise food
production, these approaches come with high environmental costs,
including deforestation, exhaustion of fresh water resources,
soil erosion, and water, soil, and air pollution.
On the demand
side, food consumption is expected to increase by 50 percent over
the next two decades because of population growth and higher incomes.
As developing countries climb out of poverty, diets become more
calorie-and protein-rich, and consumption of animal products grows.
now near 7 billion, is expected to rise to 9.2 billion in 2050.
Nearly all this addition to population will occur in the poorest
regions of the world. Prospects are grimmest for the poorest countries
with limited natural resources and extremely rapid population
growth, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite the AIDS epidemic,
sub-Saharan Africa is expected to add more than a billion to its
Consider Niger. Even the paltry amount of arable land remaining
is threatened by desertification. The current population lives
on the edge of famine. Yet by 2050 Niger's population is projected
to more than triple in size - from 16 million to 58 million. If
left unaided, many of the poorest countries, like Niger, face
a Malthusian future. Only massive food aid could stave off this
to the depletion of environmental resources to grow food and provide
rising living standards, rapid population growth and its antecedent,
high fertility, have a range of adverse health and economic effects.
The negative consequences of unintended excessive childbearing
include poor health for women and children, slow economic growth
and entrenched poverty, overcrowded schools and clinics and an
overburdened infrastructure, as well as civil strife caused by
high unemployment and inequality among rapidly growing young populations.
growth and high fertility by investing in voluntary family planning
programs and by improving education, especially of girls, is essential.
While the benefits of these initiatives were widely recognized
in the 1970s and 1980s, interest and international support has
declined since the mid-1990s. In 2005 only 0.2 per cent of official
development assistance from all Organisation for Economic Co-operation
and Development (OECD) countries was allocated to family planning
supplies and services, a 50 percent decline from the 1995 level.
(Another 0.4 percent was spent on other reproductive health services
and 3.1 percent on HIV/AIDS).
were responsible for this downward funding trend:
* the belief that fertility declines already underway and high
AIDS mortality would soon halt population growth without the need
for additional government intervention;
* the failure of earlier apocalyptic predictions such as worldwide
famine, to materialize;
opposition of conservative governments and institutions, such
as the Bush Administration and the Vatican;
* funding competition from the global AIDS epidemic; and
* negative reactions to coercive birth control measure - and fears
that more would follow - like those carried out in China and India.
This cluster of issues moved family planning from a position of
high priority in international development programmes to a second
- or even third - tier ranking by the middle of the present decade.
It is important
to note that voluntary family planning programmes are highly valued
by women. Each year 75 million unintended pregnancies occur in
the developing world (out of a total of 186 million). Most of
these end in abortions and/or have detrimental health and economic
effects for women and their families.
Over one hundred million women have an unmet need for contraception.
(They don't want to get pregnant but are not using contraception.)
They are constrained by their lack of knowledge about family planning,
limited access to supplies and services, the cost of contraception,
fear of side effects, and opposition from spouses and other family
members. But good family planning programmes are effective in
reducing these obstacles, thus reducing unintended pregnancies
and birth rates.
there is a resurgence of interest in family planning as its multiple
benefits for health, poverty reduction and the environment are
again recognized. The US government has proposed a substantial
increase in next year's funding for international family planning
activities and the World Bank is implementing a major new Reproductive
Health Action Plan. For international donors the past neglect
of family planning programs was a missed opportunity.
governments should follow the lead of the Obama administration
and the World Bank and increase investments in family planning.
These efforts can substantially reduce population growth, which
in turn has a beneficial impact on human welfare and the environment.
It is also
time to consider measures to dampen the growth of demand for food
by focusing on overconsumption in many rich countries. The tremendous
consumption of factory-farmed meat and dairy products is particularly
problematic. The production of one pound of meat requires several
pounds of cereals for animal feed. Meat eating is the environmental
equivalent of driving a low-mileage SUV. Both satisfy the consumer
but damage the environment and reduce the well-being of others.
should be priced to recognize these deleterious effects. At the
very least, government subsidies to farmers for the production
of animal-based foods should be eliminated. Taxes on animal products
make sense for the same reason as carbon taxes: they protect the
environment and benefit the community. Massive government subsidies
for the production of bio-fuels from food crops should also be
the current price shocks in the food supply have the potential
to lead us to toward decisive action. Prompt, substantial investments
in family planning and education for girls as well as abandoning
policies that incentivize overconsumption offer another opportunity
to stave off a Malthusian end.
Dr John Bongaarts is Vice President and Distinguished Scholar
at the Population Council in New York. His research has focused
on a range of population and health issues, including population
policy options in both the developed and developing world.
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