Population, Food Supplies, and the Big Unasked Question

This is a guest post by Dr. Gary Peters, author of the textbook Population Geography.

Speaking in Abu Dhabi on November 23, 2010, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf stated, “The key to long-term food security lies in boosting investment in agriculture, particularly in low-income food-deficit countries.” He also noted, “The rapid increase in hunger and malnourishment since the food crisis of 2008 reveals the inadequacy of the present global food system and the urgent need for structural changes….The food price and economic crises have had a severe impact on millions of people in all parts of the world.”

Undernourished in 2010 by Region according to FAO

Undernourished in 2010 by Region according to FAO's "The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2010."

Mr. Diouf’s comments are supported by many, if not most, economists.


Economist Views

For example, in his recent book, The Plundered Planet: Why We Must—and How We Can—Manage Nature for Global Prosperity, Paul Collier wrote, “Global food prices must be kept down…there is nothing to be done about the increase in the demand for food. The solution must be to increase world food supply.” Similarly, writing in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, in an article titled The Fertile Continent: Africa, Agriculture’s Final Frontier, Roger Thurow commented,

[T]he fact that nearly one billion people are nevertheless going hungry is a damning indictment of the world’s food-distribution system. But since demand is growing, production will also have to increase in the years ahead. With the world’s population expected to expand to more than nine billion by 2050 and much of that growth occurring in China, India, and other countries where living standards are rising fast, food production will need to increase by 70-100 percent in order to keep pace and feed the already chronically hungry.

Thurow also wrote about the need to “[S]atisfy the world’s ever-expanding appetite.”

According to a recent report from the UNFAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2010: Addressing Food Insecurity in Protracted Crises,

The number and proportion of hungry people in the world are declining as the global economy recovers and food prices remain below their peak levels, but hunger remains higher than before the food price and economic crises, making it difficult to meet the internationally agreed hunger-reduction targets.

Number of Undernourished people in the world according to FAO

Number of Undernourished people in the world, from FAO's "The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2010"

Since those 2010 targets were agreed upon in 2000 world population has increased by more than 800 million. In 2009 the number of undernourished people in the world, according to the FAO, reached just over one billion. Two hundred years ago there were not that many people on the planet. To anyone other than an economist it should be apparent that “economic growth” has not solved the problem of feeding the hungry and it probably never will. As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out, in her 2008 book This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation, “The economists’ odd fixation on growth as a measure of economic well-being puts them in a parallel universe of their own.”


World Population and Need for Stopping Population Growth

According to the Population Reference Bureau, world population increased from 6.067 billion in 2000 to 6.892 billion in 2010, an increase of 825 million people in one decade. Though the rate of natural increase dropped from 1.4 percent in 2000 to 1.2 percent in 2010, the world’s population this year will grow by about 83 million. Population projections for 2050 range from 9.1 billion (United Nations) to 9.49 billion (Population Reference Bureau); the U.S. Census Bureau projection is in between at 9.28 billion. These are projections, based on estimates of the changing course of fertility and mortality; they are not written in stone.

Is Paul Collier correct when he says that “[T]here is nothing to be done about the increase in the demand for food”? Is Roger Thurow right when he says that we need to “[S]atisfy the world’s ever-expanding appetite”? Both are wrong. The big unasked question is this: Why do we not move aggressively to stop population growth? It is not the problem but population growth exacerbates most of our problems. I know of no problem right now that will be more easily solved by adding another 80 million people to the planet each year.

In an article for the Population Reference Bureau (October 18th, 2010), “Investing in Family Planning: It Makes Dollars and Sense,” James Gribble wrote,

The linkages between smaller families and economic development are clear and the evidence is mounting. In many countries, responding to unmet need for family planning—which results in slower population growth—means that governments can spend less to provide high-quality health care, education, and water and sanitation—all of which are related to the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals]. In some countries, each dollar invested in family planning means that the government saves three dollars or more in future expenditures on other social sector programs.

We’ve known for decades that the benefit-cost ratio is high for preventing births. We’ve also known that tens of millions of births each year are unwanted. So why are the rich nations not fully funding family planning programs in the poor countries?

Food and Energy

On a different theme, Michael Levi and others wrote, in “Globalizing the Energy Revolution: How to Really Win the Clean-Energy Race,” in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs,

Oil remains indispensable to the global economy, but it is increasingly produced in places that present big commercial, environmental, and geopolitical risks; greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere; and the odds that the world will face catastrophic climate change are increasing. These problems will only worsen as global demand for energy rises.

These two themes—energy and food supply—are inseparable. In both cases increased demand is assumed and the economic problem becomes the following: How do we increase the supply of food and energy to meet the growing demand? Before the Industrial Revolution these problems were perplexing, localized, and often not solved at all in some times and places. After the Industrial Revolution, and with the rise of modern neoclassical economics, these problems were assumed to have simple solutions. If more food is needed, we will produce it; if more energy is needed, we will extract it. Let the market system do the walking, so to speak. But as James Galbraith warned, in his 2008 book The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, “The great fallacy of the market myth lies simply in the belief, for which no foundation in economics exists, that markets can think ahead.”

Our Finite World readers know that conventional oil extraction peaked in 2005 and has been on a bumpy plateau since then. Despite that, the world’s population has grown by more than 400 million during the last five years, so per capita oil extraction is steadily declining. Chris Martenson may be right when he wrote, in It’s Official: The Economy is Set To Starve, (Chrismartenson.com, Nov. 23, 2010), “The potential knock-on effects of less energy to the complex system known as our economy are unpredictable in their exact details and timing, but are thoroughly knowable via their broad, topographical outlines. The economy will become simpler and less ordered.”

A “simpler and less ordered” economy will struggle to increase food supplies, especially when per capita oil extraction is declining steadily. If food production declines in any major exporting country, exports will be affected disproportionately, much as we saw this summer with Russian wheat. Oil is critical for agricultural production, so expanding per capita food supplies in a period of declining per capita oil extraction will become ever more difficult, if not impossible. Expanding food supplies will be further complicated as more corn in the U. S. is diverted to ethanol and as climate potentially becomes more unfavorable for agriculture in important growing regions. You can not argue that this makes no difference to poor countries because many of them are dependent on significant food imports from the rich countries.

Food is critical. As Russell Hopfenberg noted, in Human Carrying Capacity is Determined by Food Availability, published in Population and Environment (Vol. 25, No. 2, Nov. 2003),

Addressing the problem of human population growth must include a shift in cultural attitudes, which may well consist of changes in the social, political, educational and religious mindset. This cultural shift must also include the recognition, as the present study makes clear, that the problem of human population growth can be feasibly addressed only if it is recognized that increases in the population of the human species, like increases in the population of all other species, is a function of increases in food availability.

Hopfenberg’s work has been misinterpreted on occasion. He does not say that population growth will be high in places with abundant food, such as the U. S., home of the overstuffed American. Rather, he says that the human population can only grow if food supplies are available.

As William R. Catton, Jr., wrote, in his 2009 book Bottleneck: The Impending Impasse,

Though we moderns may be stubbornly ethnocentric about our ‘right’ to plunge onward with ‘our way of life,’ no social order systematically promoting the pickpocket outlook and the impatience that we must ‘fly now, pay later’, can long endure. Our descendants may see that in retrospect.

Whether he is correct or not, we won’t know for some time, but I think he would agree that if we would curb population growth, it would lessen the pressure on our natural environment. If we could combine population stability or decline with modest or moderate constraints on consumption, it would at least buy time for us to develop other energy resources and move toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

In an email that I received from John Michael Greer last year, he wrote

I certainly agree that a voluntary reduction in population, now, would help a great deal. I’m sorry to say I don’t think that’s likely to happen, but then those four guys on horses are saddling up as we speak; it’s probably too late, even if people were willing, to overcome the demographic momentum in time to make a difference.

Sad to say, given our supposed sapience, he is probably correct. If he is right, then neoclassical economists, with their narrow focus on economic growth and their failure to see that humans cannot for long exceed Earth’s carrying capacity, must accept much of the blame. Kenneth Boulding was right when he wrote, “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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11 Responses to Population, Food Supplies, and the Big Unasked Question

  1. sheila, Brookings, OR. says:

    I fear we will continue to push “growth” even as we slide down the slope of Hubberds peak.

    We are horribly overpopulated a fact most people, especially economists, deny.
    This was made possible by the temporary carrying capacity provided by fossil resources.
    I think as oil declines, we will be unable to feed the current population let alone the millions already on the way.
    Renewable energy cannot solve our energy problems and it cannot power our transportation system, farm machinery or make chemical fertilizers.

    A return to preindustrial farming will mean less land to feed humans and more starvation not less.
    We will see a collapse of our population through the old familiar 4 horsemen, famine, wars, disease and death since denial and religions will make an intelligent reduction in our numbers impossible.
    We should not be sending food to hungry nations, it kills their own agricultural productivity and feeds even more population growth.
    Sending food to the hungry has resulted in even more hungry people, it’s a race we can never ‘win’.
    While there is a maldistribution problem, equality will result in equal poverty for all, there are simply too many people and our resources are in decline.
    As oil declines, our ability to secure resources that are now much poorer in quality will mean that we will run out of them sooner than if oil had remained abundant. The resources needed to manufacture renewable energy devices will not be available in the quantities needed to provide the energy that in theory could have been provided.In the best case, renewables can provide only a small fraction of what we currently use.
    How can anyone consider it possible to feed more humans or even the current population as oil declines?

    I can see no evidence for optimism and much for despair.

    As Pogo once said, “I have met the enemy and he is us.” (Or something like that.)

  2. majorian says:

    I’m not being cryptic.
    I’m pointing out that the issue of poverty and lack of food is a political problem, that is it is the way individual countries organize themselves.
    Poverty, food scarcity and economic inequality go hand in hand.
    It’s true that some countries are incapable of feeding themselves due to overpopulation and require charity but many are nearly self-sufficient.
    China and India are food exporters.
    In 2006 Japan imported 61% of its calories–the 39% corresponds to a 2000 cal/day
    adult diet.
    I think countries should, like Japan, be responsible for feeding themselves at a minimal level.
    By committing to feed these countries we are sustaining corrupt inequal regimes which do not work to improve the lot of their citizens and that’s politics.
    The West isn’t killing them, these countries are killing themselves and poverty
    is how they choose to solve their food problem.
    In the US, we choose to reward hedge fund massively for gambling.
    I have taken the lesson of Iraq to heart; change from without cannot succeed.

    “Evil exists in the world not to create despair, but activity.”

    Similarly, the world’s current blindness to PO will have dire consequences for which we are responsible.

    “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. ”
    Jean-Paul Sartre

    OTOH, I have argued loudly for an international system of energy transfer at a modest level from energy rich countries like the US, OPEC, Russia to energy poor countries(only a few countries have the reserves), especially in regard to the development of unconventional oil and coal
    while all countries massively accelerate developments of renewable energy sources.
    This ‘Import world’ would be at a minimal level to support basic agriculture and communications. I have never gotten one single response at TOD to my proposal.

  3. Dick McManus says:

    see our facebook pages “Running on Empty Caucus of United States Democrats”

  4. Gary Peters says:


    I don’t see how your comments relate to what I said. As for equality, it is nothing that our current economic system will provide. As of 2008 (2005 statistics), the World Bank has estimated that there were an estimated 1,345 million poor people in developing countries who live on $1.25 a day or less. Last year in the U.S. the top 20 hedge fund managers earned an average of just over $1 billion each.

    If per capita oil production is beginning a long-term decline, then it will be even more difficult to provide food to the poorest people, no matter what farmers do. Poor countries end up having to buy lots of food from rich countries; if the price of that food rises, they will be able to buy less. As I noted, the benefit/cost analysis favors investing in curtailing population growth. My general feeling is that it is far better to control fertility in humane ways than to let rising death rates bring populations into balance.


    I’m a fan of Garrett Hardin’s and agree with you. One of his points, made even more clearly by Herman Daly, has always been that the economic system resides within the ecosystem, not the opposite. The shortsightedness of neoclassical economics is leading us toward an ecological disaster, preceded by regular financial disasters of varying dimensions. Economics is not a science capable of predicting much of anything, as should be apparent to anyone who remembers the financial meltdown of 2008, which was predicted by no more than .01 percent of economists, a dismal record for the dismal science.


    I wish it were not true but the myopia of religions confounds attempts to fund family planning programs, even though data clearly show that tens of millions of unwanted births occur each year.

    Blunder dog,

    I guess I’m a reluctant pessimist as well. You made a lot of good points in your statement.

    It should be clear by now that “economic growth” has not been the answer to most of our problems. Worse yet, it remains the driving force in our drive toward “progress.” President Obama talks regularly about “growing the economy,” as did Presidents Bush and Clinton before him. So far the results of economic growth have been very lop-sided, resulting in a growing divide in this country between rich and poor and a similar divide in the world between rich and poor nations.

    A question that I and others have often raised is never answered: Which of our many problems will be more easily solved by adding another 80 million people to the planet each year? No matter what economists try to tell us, Earth is a finite place. Enough of us, consuming enough fossil fuels and other resources, become a force to be reckoned with, a player in changing the planet’s natural systems.

  5. Blunder Dog says:

    I’m a reluctant pessimist, though not by choice. My past as an engineering systems analyst compels me to recognize a remarkable lack of resiliance in most of our critical systems.
    Just-in-time food inventory systems; dependency on fossil fuels for chemical fertilizers and production; stressing our arable lands by utilizing lands that should remain fallow to produce biofuels and non-nutritious products; overuse of freshwater sources; monocrop growing systems dominated by genetically engineered strains resistant to herbicides; all are indicative of our substituting short term productivity and profit for resiliance.

    Financial systems have substituted real liquidity with credit and debt, and streamlined transactions by eliminating due diligence, effective oversight, and accountability:
    “In the run-up to the crisis, however, the market……had features that increased systemic risks: poor collateral valuation and margining policies, a lack of due diligence about the counterparties’ credit risk, and fragmented or nontransparent methods of clearing and settlement.”

    Large segments of our markets now exist only to promote and profit from this lack of resiliance. Some reports show that derivatives and default swaps are now “valued” in the thousands of trillions of dollars.

    We, particularly in the US, have failed to invest in making our energy and transportation systems resiliant and redundant enough so that a failure in part (all?) of a system won’t result in stressing other systems into failure mode. Infrastructure of all types is aging faster than it can be replaced at a time that our financial systems are themselves teetering and corrupt. “Robbing Peter to pay Paul” has come to robbing Luke to pay Peter, robbing John to pay Luke. The President, yesterday, proposed selling off huge tracts of federal land to help pay the debts. Sell to whom? Does this birthright belong to this generation to “liquidate”? Is this an early phase of surrender?

    All of our systems are now inextricably linked on a global scale. The house of cards is grossly over-occupied. I expect that feeding the occupants will be only one of the great challenges facing humanity.

  6. Len Gould says:

    Religious opposition to birth control, family planning, abortion etc. are going to take FAR too long to change to allow a graceful exit from this canyon. It might help sending the correct message if we criminalized such opposition but what are the odds of that happening?

  7. majorian says:

    Food shortages are nothing new and it’s not true that stopping population growth will mean more food for the hungry–food might go into biofuels or climate change and pollution could also reduce food sources.
    Food is an issue of equality. Fears that feeding the poor will result in scarcity are nonsense—more food means more profit to farmers, etc.
    Overpopulation IS bad for our environment but it can be addressed directly by birth control and rationing medical treatment.
    We need to decouple these issues.

    • Don Millman says:

      Planned Parenthood is the only charity to which I donate.

      On the other hand, Roger Thurow is no fool. He is probably the best known socialist economist writing today. From the premises of socialism, food supply MUST increase faster than population growth to reduce undernutrition in the world’s population.

      Socialism is not a viable answer to the complex of problems related to population growth that we now face. IMHO, Garrett Hardin had the right answers in his “lifeboat ethics” approach. See especially, Hardin, EPLORING NEW ETHICS FOR SURVIVAL: THE VOYAGE OF THE SPACESHIP BEAGLE, which is the most relevant and convincing book that I am acquainted with for issues related to population growth and migration.

      I used to use that book in my Environmental Economics class, and it always brought forth good discussions. Available cheap on amazon.com

  8. JMG may or may not be correct. Kurt Cobb suggests avoiding predictions.

    One thing notable is the relative silence of the population supply- siders, even the pro- growth US analyste corp. W/ the Pope backpeddling on condoms, who knows what can happen.

  9. clarence says:

    Not really relevant for this post, but relevant for some of the stuff you see posted on The Oil Drum:


    I think this will be a tremendous help in any kind of “cushioning” process.

Comments are closed.