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Population growth and the food crisis

N. Sadik

Dr Nafis Sadik is Executive Director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). Having trained in gynaecology and obstetrics, she directed national family planning programmes in Pakistan before joining UNFPA, the world's largest source of multilateral assistance to population programmes. Dr Sadik has written extensively on family planning and health.

A country's ability to feed itself very much depends on three factors: availability of arable land, accessible water and population pressures. The more people there are, especially in poor countries with limited amounts of land and water, the fewer resources there are to meet basic needs. If basic needs cannot be met, development stalls and economies begin to unravel. In some poor countries, attempts to increase food production and consumption are undermined by rapid population growth; migration from rural to urban areas; unequal land distribution; shrinking landholdings; deepening rural poverty; and widespread land degradation. Lower birth rates, along with better management of land and water resources, are necessary to avert chronic food shortages.

The demographic picture

Not long ago, in 1984, it seemed as if the rate of population growth was slowing everywhere except in Africa and parts of southern Asia. Today, the situation looks less promising since progress made toward reducing birth rates has been slower than expected. The world's population, now 5300 million, is increasing by approximately 250 000 people every day. It is estimated that 1 000 million people will be born during this decade. Over the next ten years, the population of the industrialized world will grow by 56 million, while the number of people living in developing countries will expand to over 900 million (United Nations Population Division, 1989; UNFPA, 1989). By and large, the biggest increases will occur in the poorest countries - those societies least equipped to meet the needs of the new arrivals and invest in their future.

Meeting food needs

Worldwide, enough food is produced to feed everyone, yet this food and the technology to produce it do not always reach those in need. As a result of food deficits, nearly 1 000 million people do not get enough to eat and over 400 million are chronically malnourished. Every year 11 million children under the age of five die from hunger or hunger-related diseases (Lean, Hinrichsen and Markham, 1990).

In recent decades there has been impressive growth in food production, which has been attributed to the development of improved, disease-resistant varieties of staple crops; the increased use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides; and the expansion of irrigated cropland. Nevertheless, per caput food production actually declined in 51 developing countries while rising in only 43 between 1979-1981 and 1986-1987. Among the African countries, 25 experienced a drop in per caput cereal production. In Latin America, production was also disappointing: 17 countries suffered a decline (UNFPA, 1990). In Asia, food production has managed to keep slightly ahead of population growth largely because of new breeds of Asian rice and the use of tremendous amounts of agricultural chemicals. However, in some areas losses from poor land management have erased the benefits which had been gained (Repetto et al., 1989). Consequently, developing countries' food imports are rising dramatically to compensate for local deficits.


To confront the immense population and resource challenges facing humanity, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities has launched a major initiative for the 1990s.1 The purpose of this effort is outlined in the Amsterdam Declaration which calls for the following goals to be achieved by the year 2000:

[1 The Amsterdam Forum on Population in the Twenty-first Century was held in November 1989. A result of this forum was the Amsterdam Declaration which calls for annual funding of US$9000 million for population and family planning programmes by the end of this decade and the linking of population concerns with overall development objectives.]

· increase the number of couples practising contraception from the current 381 million to 567 million;

· reduce the 1980 rate of infant mortality by 50 percent;

· increase average life expectancy at birth to 62 years or more for men and women in countries with high mortality rates;

· improve the geographical distribution of the population within national boundaries;

· strive to improve the status of women throughout all spheres of life;

· ensure that couples and individuals are guaranteed their basic human right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children;

· increase the quality, effectiveness and outreach of national population programmes;

· promote community participation and youth involvement;

· ensure that the results are taken into account in the formulation of the development strategy for the Fourth United Nations Development Decade.

The food crisis equation

The food crisis equation has three main components. First, life-styles, incomes and social organization determine levels of consumption. Second, the technologies in use determine both the extent to which human activities damage or sustain the environment and the amount of waste associated with a given level of consumption. Poverty may prevent the adoption of more appropriate technologies that could halt or slow down environmental degradation. These two factors determine the impact on individuals. Inequality enters as a third factor when, for example, most land is in large holdings and the poor are forced to live on smallholdings or in marginal areas. A fourth factor, population, acts as the multiplier that determines the total impact. Population is always part of the equation. For any given type of technology, level of consumption or waste and poverty or inequality, the more people there are, the greater the impact on the environment is and, in turn, the greater the impact on food production capacity will be.

Land fragmentation affects food production and is a direct result of rapid population growth in many poor countries. Often landholdings which are too small to provide a tolerable livelihood have been turned into part-time farms, with some household members (usually the women and children) staying at home to tend crops while others (often the men) migrate in search of wage employment. Alternatively, land is sold to wealthier landowners, making land distribution more uneven and adding to the creation of a large pool of landless labourers. In addition, rapid population growth can lead to inappropriate farming practices that impoverish and erode the soil; reduce vegetation; over-use and improperly use agrochemicals; and frustrate water resource management. The result of such practices is severe land degradation.

A way ahead

Population pressures continue to tip the balance against proper land and water management in many developing countries. While agricultural production is critical for any form of sustainable future, focusing on the agricultural sector alone without regard for other important factors which influence food production is certainly not the way to tackle the problems. Population programmes must be integrated into overall development objectives and be linked to other resource issues.

In order for hard-pressed developing countries to come to grips with falling per caput food production and resource degradation, they need strategic plans that incorporate population concerns such as population growth, distribution and rural-urban migration patterns. Wherever possible, community development strategies which integrate essential social services as well as production resources should be encouraged.

Sustainable development strategies which combat soil erosion and impoverishment, deforestation, falling agricultural output, and poor water management should also be implemented, as should rural agricultural extension schemes which provide credit, seeds, fertilizers and advice to poorer farmers, regardless of whether they are men or women. Finally, support must be given to research on the integration of traditional and emerging technologies for food production.

Given the current levels of population and likely trends, it is imperative to anticipate future needs. At the same time, improved resource management would go a long way toward increasing crop yields, preventing land degradation in the first place and providing sustainable livelihoods for millions of rural poor. The management of natural resources will require an equal commitment to the development of human resources: this means, among other things, extending population programmes and family planning services to the millions who currently lack them. National population programmes should include comprehensive and accessible maternal and child health care programmes and family planning services in order to reduce the size of families and improve the health and well-being of the entire community. With such efforts, there is a chance of increasing food production while protecting the environment and easing the burdens of the rural poor.


Overall, women are responsible for half the food production in developing countries (N. Sadik, 1989). The time and energy required of women for cultivation and harvesting, food processing and preparation as well as the fetching of fuel and water rarely figure in national labour statistics. Their central place in resource use and crop production has yet to be recognized by most governments. Women rarely participate other than in rather peripheral ways in shaping their countries' economic and social policies. Successful policies will secure women's involvement from the outset and will also ensure that development does not merely mean additional burdens for women.

By formally recognizing women's pivotal role, governments will be taking a big step toward safeguarding food production. First, recognition of the dual role of women is needed. It is imperative that family planning services, improvements in nutrition, access to education and health care be made available to those women who lack access to them. Insuring women's health by implementing family planning and maternal child health services will not only bring down fertility rates, it will also mean that women will have more time for other activities including growing food and tending the land. If women have improved access to family planning services - accompanied by changes in traditional beliefs and attitudes about the role and status of women - they will bear fewer children. The downward spiral of large families, poverty and landlessness can be broken.

In addition, special agricultural and environmental extension services available to women (who carry out most of the land and water management in poorer areas of the developing world) should be developed. There must be assurances that women can inherit, buy and have full legal title to land and that they have access to credit and marketing facilities. Better educated women are more effective as farmers and environmental managers and they have smaller families (UNFPA, 1989); therefore, education for women and girls in rural areas should be emphasized.

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