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7 Billion Mouths

Increasing agricultural production to feed the world’s growing population is often seen as integral to achieving sustainable development. According to the United Nation’s Environment Programme the world’s population will increase from 7 to 9 billion by 2050 with agricultural production needing to be increased to keep pace. This is an old argument often traced to the work of British scholar and Reverend Thomas Malthus who, at the end of the 18th century argued that food production always plays catch-up with human population growth. But, as the FAO’s own data also demonstrate, world food production has consistently outstripped population growth for at least the last 50 years. So what is going on?

There are more than a few perspectives on this. Perhaps the most familiar is the demographic transition model that suggests that as societies undergo modernization they transition from a ‘pre-modern’ demographic pattern of high
fertility and high mortality, to an essentially ‘modern’ one of low fertility and low mortality. As such, the argument is that global food production be increased while the developing world catches up to the developed world.

This is a somewhat comforting story because it suggests that development-as-we-know-it (i.e. modernisation) must continue, and that increasing food production is (perversely) helping to slow down population growth. Indeed,
nobody disputes the fact that fertility has declined among the developed nations of the world. But what is disputed is why.

An alternative viewpoint looks at humans like animals. Outrageous, I know. According to human reproductive ecologists humans are capable of adjusting their fertility to prevailing ecological conditions, just like any other animal; except that humans can employ a range of cultural tactics (e.g. birth control) in addition to physiological ones (e.g. interruptions to menstrual function with intense aerobic exercise) to adjust their fertility. So, from this perspective, declines in fertility happen because people are resource stressed.

“But wait!” I hear you shout. People in the developed world consume up to fifty times more resources per capita than those in the developing world. They aren’t  resource stressed. They’re over-resourced. Yes, that’s correct. But if you look at it from the perspective of a ‘first-world’ parent, raising a child costs a lot more in the developed world than it does in the developing world. Children in the developed world require expensive clothing, food, technology, health care, education, a room to themselves, a new computer, a flat screen television… I could go on. Not only are children more expensive, but also they don’t become economically independent or productive until much later in life: around the age of 18… or was that 32! To put it another way, like adults in the developed world, children consume up to 50 times more resources than children in the developing world.

So, according to human reproductive ecologists people in the developed world maintain low levels of fertility, delaying reproduction until later in life (when their careers and earning potential are established) and ultimately having fewer children, because they simply can’t afford to have more kids, given their level of consumption.

Returning to the bigger picture, as the developing world develops, their level of consumption is going to increase, perhaps until it matches that of the developed world. In so doing, their population numbers may very well level-off. But by 2050, all 9 billion people living on this planet will be consuming resources at a rate up to 50 times higher than people living in the developing world today. According to a recent report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) our current rate of consumption requires 1.5 planets to be sustainable. By 2050, that number could be 5 or 6 or more.

So is increasing food production to feed a growing population really sustainable? Or should our efforts be directed toward reducing consumption and creating stable, resilient, localised food production systems to meet our more meagre needs?

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