As Demand for Food Explodes, Family Planning Critical

John Bongaarts

Population growth is a driver of the long-term demand for food. Investing in education for girls and helping women prevent unwanted pregnancies can help keep demand sustainable.

recent sharp rise in global food prices has led to riots and raised
concern about how to meet the needs of poor countries, where much of
consumer income is already spent on food. Although this price spike
is in part due to short-term factors–drought in Australia, speculative
investing, low reserves, and hoarding — food prices will likely remain
high for several reasons.

by 2030 food demand is expected to increase by 50 percent 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. Next are environmental constraints on expanding
production. In much of the world the most productive land is already
used for agriculture or covered by man-made structures; the best river
sites have been dammed; and the benefits of the green revolution have
been largely exploited. In many densely populated countries water shortages
are acute. The newest threat to food production comes from steeply rising
energy prices. Energy is an integral part of every step in the food
production system–cultivation, harvesting, transportation, refrigeration,
packaging, and distribution–and prices of hydrocarbon-based fertilizer
and pesticides have skyrocketed. Another important driver of food prices
is the recent diversion of crops to the production of bio-fuels.

most widely discussed solutions to this food crisis focus on supply-side
measures such as cultivating more land, investing in agricultural infrastructure
and technology, and subsidizing farming inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides,
and water. Such measures, together with higher prices, will no doubt
stimulate agricultural production. But this outcome is not sustainable
because of high environmental costs, including deforestation, exhaustion
of fresh water resources, soil erosion, and water, soil, and air pollution.

is time to consider measures to dampen the growth of demand for food.
This should not involve harming the billions of people who are malnourished
and badly in need of better diets. The focus should be on overconsumption
in many rich countries. The high consumption of factory-farmed meat
and dairy products is particularly problematic because the production
of a pound of meat requires several pounds of cereals for animal feed.
Meat eating is the environmental equivalent of driving a gas-guzzling
SUV. Both satisfy the consumer but damage the environment and reduce
the well-being of others. They should be priced to recognize these effects.
At the very least, subsidies 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 subsidies for the production of bio-fuels from food
crops should also be eliminated.

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other driver of long-term demand for food is population growth. World
population is expected to increase by 2.5 billion, reaching 9.2 billion
in 2050. Nearly all these additions will be in the poorest regions of
the world. For example, despite the AIDS epidemic, sub-Saharan Africa
is expected to add more than a billion to its current population of
770 million. Unfortunately, the AIDS epidemic resulted in a reduction
of the investment in family planning. This was a mistake, in particular
because many women are bearing more children than they want since they
lack access to contraception.

are grimmest for the poorest countries (most of them in sub-Saharan
Africa) with limited natural resources and extremely rapid population
growth. For example, by 2050 Niger’s population is projected to quadruple
in size–from 13 million to 53 million–even though the little available
arable land is threatened by desertification and the current population
lives on the edge of famine. If left unaided, most of the poorest countries
face a Malthusian future. Only massive food aid could stave off this
prospect. Reducing population growth–by investing in family planning
programs and by improving education, especially of girls–is essential.
Poor countries that have followed this strategy have lowered their population
growth, e.g., Sri Lanka and the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in India.
Without such investments, hundreds of millions will face famine and
environmental destruction. 

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