Population People

Posted October 1999

6,000,000,000 and counting:
Food security and agriculture in a demographically changing world

prepared by the Population Programme Service
FAO Women and Population Division

ON 12 OCTOBER the international community will observe the Day of the Six Billion, recording the fact that the world is about to enter the third millennium with an unprecedented six thousand million inhabitants. The last fifty years have been unique in terms of the numbers added to humankind: the population of our planet was only 2.5 thousand million in 1950. The growth will be markedly slower in future, but in terms of absolute numbers the increase of the next half-century might equal that of the preceding one: a global population between 7.3 and 10.7 thousand million is expected in 2050, with 8.9 thousand million deemed the most likely figure in the present state of our forecasting capabilities.

Throughout history, local communities as well as the governments of nations have been concerned with the possibility of feeding a growing population. Will this concern remain alive in the first half of the 21st century, when population growth will be the main factor in increasing global food demand? Recent history seems reassuring: in 1995, world per caput supplies of food for direct human consumption were 18 percent greater than in 1965, while during that period the world population had increased by 70 percent. Why, one might ask, would a similar feat not be repeated beween 1995 and 2050, in the face of an expected population increase of probably less than 60 percent?

First of all, there can be no certainty that past events - however good or bad - can be repeated. More importantly, the possible global performance matters only to a point, because of the heterogeneity of situations it will encompass. In the case at hand, experience also tells us that the most productive and progressive agricultural systems are those of industrialized countries with slow or no population growth, while in many developing countries agricultural production keeps lagging behind a rapidly growing population. The latter case applies mainly in Africa, but in other regions as well. Most of the countries concerned lack alternative economic resources that would enable them to import growing quantities of food.

Another aspect of the global food equation is possibly even more crucial, namely in-country inequalities in access to food. An estimated 1300 million persons throughout the developing regions live on the equivalent of less than one US dollar a day - a situation that makes the satisfaction of even basic food needs highly problematic. Indeed, it is also estimated that more than 800 million people, most of them in developing countries, do not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs. The main challenge is to enable that segment of the population to satisfy - through producing or purchasing - its food needs on a stable basis. In addition this should be achieved with due attention to the sustainable use of resources. Let us see how the international community is facing these issues.

Population and agriculture: international commitments

Leaders assembled in Rome in November 1996 for the World Food Summit (WFS) renewed the global commitment to the fight against poverty and hunger. FAO member states pledged their political will to an effort to eradicate hunger in all countries and to achieving food security for all, with an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half its present level no later than 2015. Several population issues - such as population growth, migration and gender relations - were recognized as relevant to sustainable agriculture and rural development and highlighted in the WFS Plan of Action and the Rome Declaration on World Food Security, which lay the foundations for diverse paths to a common and overall objective - food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels.

In recognizing the relevance of specific population issues the WFS built on the results of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD, held in Cairo in 1994). The ICPD Programme of Action endorsed a new strategy emphasizing the reciprocal linkages of population change and development processes. It also highlighted the importance of addressing the needs of individual women and men rather than aiming at demographic targets, and focused on poverty eradication, environmental sustainability, gender equity and women's empowerment. The Programme of Action highlighted several population issues as they relate to development, and the need to integrate related concerns into the formulation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes. These concerns and tasks are highly relevant for FAO and have been made part of its approaches and work programmes.

Population issues in agricultural and rural development

How do population issues relate to food security and the development of rural societies? Let us look at some examples of important linkages.

Population growth

The six thousand million people in the world today have, on average, more food per person than has ever been available on the globe, yet decline in the number of the undernourished is painfully slow. During 2000-2050 the population of developing regions is currently expected to grow by another 59 percent, with marked regional disparities - the added percentage ranging from 16 percent for developing Eastern Asia to 100 percent for Western Asia and 137 percent for sub-Saharan Africa. Besides, the countries with rapid population growth often are also those with a persisting food deficit. Those also often are the countries where per caput supplies need to be increased to remedy overall inadequacies and in-country inequalities.

From this viewpoint the decline in population growth rates which has started in most developing countries - and is fairly advanced in some of them - is welcome. But to strengthen food security and address disparities, large increases in food production are needed, combined with a growth in effective demand - hence in non-agricultural incomes - and improved international trade.

Finally, agricultural intensification and the expansion of land exploitation required cannot ignore the constraint of conserving natural resources for future generations. But when adaptations in technology cannot follow the pace of growth in food and agricultural demand, the pressure results in increased rates of exploitation of natural resources and environmental degradation. This is a most delicate challenge in poor societies, where it is hard to give proper weight to preoccupations over the fate of future generations in the face of an equally legitimate concern for the survival and wellbeing of present ones.

Migration and urbanization

Migration is the most volatile among demographic phenomena: migratory flows can appear, change intensity and even get reversed in a short time. From the viewpoint of economic and social policies migration has a complex nature. Being often a consequence of poverty and lack of food security, it usually is an indicator of problem areas. On the other hand it may contribute to resolve problems in sending areas by reducing population pressure there. But then again, it may deprive those same areas of valuable labour and human resources. At the migrants' level it should on average improve individual or household wellbeing; but at the aggregate level it may add to social tensions, environmental problems and economic woes in receiving areas (e.g. food insecurity and specific nutritional problems among migrants can be a feature of large-scale migration flows, including refugee movements). Much still needs to be done to take into account migration flows, their determinants and their possible consequences in the design of development interventions.

Migration causes changes in the spatial distribution of populations, the most notable of which is urbanization. The UN estimates that urban areas accounted for 20 percent of the population of developing regions in 1955, and 40 percent now. Although the speed of rural-to-urban population transfers has slowed down, it is expected that by 2020 the majority of the population of developing regions will be urban. Here again, regional disparities exist: in many countries of Africa (especially Eastern Africa) and Asia (especially South-central Asia) the process is much less advanced; by 2030 the two sub-regions just mentioned, or the group of the "least developed countries", will still have less than 50 percent of urban population. On the other hand Western Asia, or Latin America and the Caribbean, already are as highly urbanized as Europe and North America.

Urbanization is commonly associated with the idea of modernization. From the rural viewpoint urbanization can foster the development of commercial agriculture and contribute, with urban-based products and services, to agricultural progress and the modernization of rural life. On the other hand, the intensity of rural-to-urban population transfers often is determined by flight from rural poverty rather than by actual economic opportunities in the non-agricultural sectors. In such cases the livelihood and food security problems of urban populations are excacerbated. From the macro-economic viewpoint, the intersectoral labour transfers that are part of the urbanization process pose a specific challenge: that of ensuring that agricultural labour productivity grows as rapidly as the ratio of total population to agricultural labour force - lest the degree of satisfaction of domestic needs should decrease, or the dependency on imports should increase.


The ageing of human populations (i.e. the gradual increase in the proportion of adults and elderly people) has emerged as one of the most significant demographic processes of the late 20th century and of the decades to come. In developing countries the proportion of population over 60, now estimated at 8 percent, is expected to rise to 21 percent by 2050. It is worth noting that the total percentage of dependant population will not increase, since the population under age 15, now estimated at 33 percent, is expected to decline to 20 percent during the same period; the total of these two age categories will therefore still be 41 percent. On the other hand, the fact that the elderly people will make up half of the dependant population instead of one fifth implies greatly changed needs.

Interestingly, FAO has shown that ageing often manifests itself earlier, and proceeds faster, in rural areas than in the urban sector, due to the migration of younger family members to the cities. Now, the age structure and the composition of the labour force have implications for the division of labour, including in agricultural systems. In this context, the specific needs of elderly rural workers must be understood and taken into account in policies, and their value and contributions must be promoted. The implications of changes in age structures for sustainable agriculture and food security must be studied and efforts must be made to build on the potentially positive changes for areas such as rural credit.

Gender issues in rural societies

Gender roles and relations, including the specific constraints, needs and opportunities of men and women have an influence on demographic phenomena such as fertility, mortality and migration (and the resulting population structures and spatial distribution). For instance, women's empowerment, including more equal access to education, has been shown to foster a reduction in fertility and infant mortality. An important aspect of those relationships, in rural areas, concerns the agricultural division of labour, access to/management of productive resources, and outcomes such as food security. The differences between women and men in terms of their roles, the impact of interventions on each individual, and his or her opportunities to gain access to resources and decision-making have to be recognized and taken into account in order to implement successful development programmes.

Health and HIV/AIDS

Development agencies have begun to regard the AIDS pandemic (like other widespread diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis) as an important crosscutting developmental issue. FAO has shown that the HIV/AIDS pandemic exacerbates existing obstacles to production in agriculture and increases malnutrition. The sickness and death of working adults affect labour supply and its division between adults and children, as well as between men and women. AIDS is thus a challenge to all agricultural institutions, both at central and local level. These need to reassess their mode of operation and to respond effectively to the rapidly changing needs of rural populations. Agricultural policies and programmes can have an important impact on the course of the epidemics: for example, fluctuations in commodity prices or in yields can encourage temporary migration, which increases the vulnerability of populations and individuals and may further expose them to the infection.

Looking ahead

Looking at the coming decades, the international community must be aware that food, agricultural and rural development challenges require enough understanding and anticipation of changes in the population setup, particularly at the country and regional levels, and of how agricultural demand, production, trade and natural resources management will be affected by those changes. In designing policies to address the said challenges, purely technical and sectoral approaches are likely to be inferior to the task: programmes should recognize the biophysical, demographic, social, economic, cultural and institutional dimensions of development goals. In this context, monitoring population change - and studying its determinants - at the level of relevant economic and agro-ecological areas would be a valuable input to policy making in this sector like in others.

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