Challenges Facing Agriculture: Population

The papers presented at the International Conference on Food Security and Climate Change highlighted many daunting challenges facing agriculture’s capacity to meet the world’s food security needs over the next four decades. A series of occasional blog posts will attempt to summarize some of the key challenges that countries will face in the near future, and how these challenges are going to affect agriculture and food security. The first challenge addressed is the growing world population.

Food insecurity (malnutrition, undernourishment, famine, etc.) has many causes; the available food supply is only one contributing factor. Economists have pointed out that famine is as much a political and social issue as it is a production and supply issue. Case in point, the world population recently passed the 7 billion mark, and while we produce enough food to feed everyone, market failures (i.e. poor transportation infrastructure, trade barriers) prevent the adequate distribution of essential food-stuffs to millions of people. In fact, more than 21% of children under 5 are malnourished worldwide, with almost 14% of the 7 billion people suffering from undernourishment. There are many factors that contribute to food insecurity worldwide, such as poverty, climatic shocks, and political instability. The following examples illustrate how these factors have influenced food insecurity in the past.

  • Poverty: Most of the world’s poor, even when they are capable of producing some of their food consumption, must still rely on outside sources for their consumption. This makes them subject to food prices, and, with limited incomes, price shocks can led to rapid declines in nutrition
  • Climatic Shocks: Major droughts in Eastern Africa have resulted in near famine conditions for many people in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia.
  • Political Instability: Internal conflicts in fragile states like Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, the DRC, and Iraq have uprooted many people from their homes, placing them in dangerous and food insecure conditions

If that is how the food security picture looks now, what will the future look like when the global population increases by almost 30% (2 billion people) over the next four decades?

If that is how the food security picture looks now, what will the future look like when global population increases by almost 30% (2 billion people) over the next four decades? While food supply is not the only factor contributing to food security, an increase of 2 billion people, or “two Chinas” as Jerry Nelson of IFPRI put it, will put pressure on the agriculture sector to continue providing a sufficient food supply to the world. Less food per person will aggravate further the social and political constraints that have led to our current food security situation.

The truly worrisome aspect of this expected population increase is that we really won’t be adding “two more Chinas” by 2050-- we will be adding 10 more Pakistans or Nigerias. This is because the additional 2 billion people will predominantly be born in the developing world, and will be fueled by rapid population growth in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia, where a disproportionate number of the world’s food insecure currently live. In fact, of the 30 countries with the fastest growing populations, 22 are in Sub-Saharan Africa (UN population projection). The countries that are expecting to see these large increases in population are generally those that lack critical social and physical infrastructure to handle the additional population pressure. Millions of these people will be born in regions prone to political instability, increasing the probability they will experience food insecurity.

The table above summarizes the changes in population projected by the United Nations in their medium population projection. I’ve highlighted the 10 fasted growing countries, as well as a few very large countries, and some regional aggregates. The table shows that most of the fastest-growing countries have high incidence of childhood malnutrition and undernourishment in the population at large. If food production remains at the current rate, we will certainly see a worsening of this situation. However, even if agriculture manages to keep pace at a local level, we may see worrying increases in food insecurity in the developing world that could trigger greater political instability through food riots, such as those that took place in 2007 and 2008 in Egypt, Peru, Bangladesh, and other countries during the world food crisis.

It will be essential to invest in the agricultural sector in the developing world, but especially in Africa, which did not benefit as much as Asia from the Green revolution. Increased productivity of agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa will be essential to improving the supply of food to local markets. While investments in physical infrastructure such as transportation networks will also be critical in overcoming some of the market failures that impede the ideal distribution of food, without improved agricultural practices that increase yields and local income the food security picture in the developing world will become much gloomier.

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