Posted October 1999
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.
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.
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 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.
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.