Population growth

Unless the global climate really does go awry during the period to 2020, in most world regions it is hard to see drought, by itself, causing famine-as it virtually did, for example, in several parts of Asia around 1972-74. But, again, sub-Saharan Africa could be a different story. In any case, for many countries in this region we assess overall levels of national food security (including a sociopolitical component) to be so low as to virtually ensure the continuation of periodic food crises in sub-Saharan Africa.

The coming quarter century will certainly have its surprises (perhaps the best would be if circumstances in sub-Saharan Africa genuinely improved). But on the issue of the relationship between world population growth and food supplies it is hard to envisage that the situation will get very much worse in the way that some neo-Malthusians evidently suppose. Despite these caveats, there is fair reason to expect that in the year 2020 world agriculture will be feeding the larger global population no worse-and probably a little better-than it manages to do today. This all adds up to tempered hope.

Obviously the task won’t be easy (it has not been easy in the past). For most poor countries we can firmly reject any optimistic notion that their demographic growth alone will somehow spontaneously generate commensurate increases in food production. Population growth may be a slow-acting process, the independent effects of which are sometimes hard to isolate in statistical analyses. But there can be no doubt at all that contemporary world population growth is making the task of satisfactorily feeding humanity significantly harder to accomplish than it would otherwise be.

And population growth is going to be the paramount cause of increased food production in the coming decades-a fact with countless ramifications (Allan, 1995). On the other hand, we have also seen that the modern neo-Malthusian case suffers from major questions of credibility. Pronouncements from this quarter are often deceptively simple and have to be read with very great care. There can be problems of selectivity and representation. Moreover, these problems of credibility are not confined to a neo-Malthusian core, but are sometimes displayed by representatives of mainstream agencies concerned with world food issues.

Simple claims and soundbites are doubtless easy to convey. And in most years it is usually possible to represent some of ‘last year’s’ statistics in a disturbing light. But the relationship between population and food is complex. Indeed, one major reason for tempered hope regarding humanity’s prospects to 2020 derives precisely from this very complexity. A host of factors intervene between population and food to provide a measure of flexibility and adaptability.


Allan, T. (1995) ‘The political economy of Jordan catchment water’, in J. A. Allan and J. H. O. Court (eds) Water in the Jordan Catchment Countries, SOAS Water Issues Group, London: School of Oriental and African Studies. Anderson, K. and Tyers, R. (1991) Global Effects of Liberalizing Trade in Farm Products, London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf. Barnett, V. , Payne, R. and Steiner, R. (eds) (1995) Agricultural Sustainability: Economic, Environmental and Statistical Considerations, Chichester: John Wiley. Basu, D. R. (1984) ‘Food policy and the analysis of famine’, Indian Journal of Economics 64, 254:289-301. Dyson, T. and Maharatna, A.

(1992) ‘Bihar famine, 1966-67, and Maharashtra drought, 1970-73: The demographic consequences’, Economic and Political Weekly 27, 26:1325-32. Ehrlich, P. R. (1968) The Population Bomb, New York: Ballantine Books. Ehrlich, P. R. and Ehrlich, A. H. (1990) The Population Explosion, New York: Simon B. Schuster. Gastil, R. (ed. ) (1989) Freedom in the World 1988-89, New York: Freedom House. Gilland, B. (1993) ‘Cereals, nitrogen and population: An assessment of the global trends’, Endeavour, New Series 17, 2:84-8. Kutzner, P. L. (1991) World Hunger, A Reference Handbook, Santa Barbara and Oxford: ABC-CLIO.

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