Family Research Council

Hunger, Plenty, and Population

By Rob Schwarzwalder Senior Vice-President

 

We live in an age of plenty; we live in an age of hunger.

This rather Dickensian formulation captures one of the central paradoxes of our time: Global resources are sufficient to feed an ever-growing population, yet millions live without adequate nutrition or are dying outright of malnutrition or starvation.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 900 million persons out of an approximate global population of 7 billion are hungry.[1] It is estimated that "at least 8 million die every year of hunger-related diarrhea, pneumonia and other illnesses - more than succumb to AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. A child dies of hunger every 11 seconds."[2]

Why? According to the same Los Angeles Times article from which that last quote is derived, "As (the) world's population grows, hunger stalks more of its residents."[3]

Really? Is the number of human consumers greater, increasingly, than the resources of the earth can provide? As the title suggests, are the world's resources like a pie-graph with smaller portions per person as population increases?

To put it succinctly: No. According to the U.N.'s Population Division, "Perhaps the most significant demographic change over the past three decades has been the substantial decline in fertility in all areas of the world. Since 1970-1975 world total fertility has declined by 37 percent: from 4.5 births per woman to the 1995-2000 level of 2.8."[4]

Another major factor in this population decline is the "war against girls" in the developing world. As Science Magazine writer Mara Hvistendahl's book Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men documents, the U.N. Population Fund has provided funding such that, in total, 160 million Asian women have been aborted in recent decades, and the demographic trends in Europe indicate a virtually irreversible population decline.[5][6]

Scholar Nicholas Eberstadt, writing in Foreign Affairs, offers a worthy coda to these data:

... the future global economy will not be able to rely on the kind of demographic inputs that helped fuel growth in the era before the current global recession. For today's affluent Western economies, the coming demographic challenge of stagnant and aging populations combined with mounting health and pension claims on a shrinking pool of prospective workers is already generating concern, especially in Europe and Japan . But at the same time, demographic constraints in the rising economies that are expected to fuel future global growth are more serious and intractable than generally recognized.[7]

But even as population growth slows, the current quantity of the world's food resources is more than adequate for the needs of all persons. The U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) states flatly, "There is enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life."[8] One of the key reasons is the massive improvement in productivity per acre. "(A)ccording to USDA figures, the world was producing 1.9 million metric tons of grain from 579.1 hectares of land (a hectare is 2.47 acres) in 1976. In 2004, we got 3.1 million metric tons of grain from only 517.9 hectares of land."[9]

Still, the myth of food shortages due to overpopulation is widespread. But it is just that-a myth. According to the World Hunger Education Service, "In raw volume, the world's farmers produce enough food for everyone."

The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day according to the most recent estimate that we could find.(United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] 2002, p.9). The [principle] problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food."[10]

Clearly, many of the world's poor have insufficient access to arable land or have incomes that are too meager to provide for their needs. Widespread corruption is another factor. For example, in the Horn of Africa, Kenya is struggling with government malfeasance in the distribution of food and, according to journalist Tristan McConnell, "Kenya is not an isolated case."[11]

A recent investigation into food distribution in Mogadishu by the Associated Press found that even as tens of thousands of people were starving to death in Somalia last year unscrupulous politicians and contractors were stealing food meant to save lives, while there was inadequate oversight by WFP officials.[12]

In the words of journalist Aleksandr Shkolnikov, "the root source of famine in the Horn of Africa - (is) corruption and lack of democratic governance and responsibility."[13]

Yet perhaps the most neglected and unexpected reason for world hunger has to do with environmental restrictions. Western environmentalist advocates have raised concerns and promoted restrictions on the growth and distribution of genetically-modified foods. As Henry I. Miller, who started the FDA's Office of Biotechnology, puts it, "Products now in development with gene-splicing techniques offer the possibility of even higher yields, lower inputs of agricultural chemicals and water, enhanced nutrition, and even plant-derived, orally active vaccines."[14]

While research on genetically modified food should continue,[15] the implications of some of these new developments are staggering. According to a recent international study led by Dr. Calestous Juma of Harvard University:

Africa can feed itself. And it can make the transition from hungry importer to self-sufficiency in a single generation ... "New technologies, especially biotechnology, provide African countries with additional tools for improving the welfare of farmers," said Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore ...[16]

"The potential is huge. With a little investment, Africa can feed itself and it has the potential to feed the world," claims Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad), a United Nations agency.[17]

So, if new hybrids and "gene-spliced" foods could do so much good, why are they not literally taking root in Africa 's soil? The late Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, father of the "Green Revolution" that transformed Indian agriculture, said that some Western environmentalists "have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels . If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists in wealthy nations were trying to deny them these things."[18]

Borlaug went on to predict: "If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years."[19]

In another interview, Borlaug he concluded:

"(Environmental) extremists who are living in great affluence... are saying that poor people shouldn't have roads. I would like to see them not just go out in the bush backpacking for a week but be forced to spend the rest of their lives out there and have their children raised out there. Let's see whether they'd have the same point of view then."[20]

Jim Lacey, who teaches at both the Marine War College and Johns Hopkins University , offers a perceptive and arresting summary of this unintentionally, anti-human policy: allow the poor starve and suffer before "polluting" strains of rice and grain:

Leftists ...have greatly delayed and in some places stopped cold the use of rice modified to increase vitamin A content. For the Left this is cause for celebration. In fact, widespread use of this "golden rice" would have prevented a half-million cases of child blindness a year. So the next time someone talks to you about the evils of genetically modified foods, remind him of the millions of poor children this crusade has condemned to a lifetime of blindness. How do folks prepared to allow millions to needlessly go blind still command the respect of any truly moral person?

However, even looking the other way as children go blind pales in comparison to the needless starving of millions that has occurred because anti-GM-food groups have frightened and bullied the people and governments of Africa into forbidding the use of GM seeds. Such seeds, modified to resist the effects of drought and disease, would make Africa self-sufficient in foodstuffs. But for most African farmers they remain unavailable because of the successful efforts of American and European anti-GM-food groups. Even though every American consumes GM foods on an almost daily basis, with no ill effects, they remain off limits to those most in need. [21]

True scientific inquiry and research should continue to explore the potential effects of genetic modification. But potential concerns should never trump the actual survival of millions. Scare-mongering by extremists has allowed us to accept human starvation, malnutrition, and disease as acceptable costs for sustaining food sources whose modification, while real, has not been recent.

Willingly to permit profound human suffering is vicious. Many environmentally conscientious citizens are only dimly aware of such suffering. The consequences of their opposition to GM foods are unintentional. However, neither of these things diminishes our moral imperative to change our course of policy and action. "Privileged societies have the luxury of adopting a very low-risk position on the GM crops issue," wrote Dr. Borlaug. "The vast majority of humankind does not have such a luxury, and certainly not the hungry victims of wars, natural disasters, and economic crises."[22]

There is good news, however: our capacity for feeding the world remains strong.

Over the past 50 years, worldwide food production per capita has risen, even as the global population has doubled. Indeed, so successful have farmers been at increasing production that food prices fell to record lows in the early 2000s and large parts of western Europe and North America have been reclaimed by forest. (A policy of turning some of the world's grain into motor fuel has reversed some of that decline and driven prices back up.)

Meanwhile, family size continues to shrink on every continent. The world population will probably never double again, whereas it quadrupled in the 20th century. With improvements in seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, transport, and irrigation still spreading across Africa, the world may well feed 9 billion inhabitants in 2050-and from fewer acres than it now uses to feed 7 billion.[23]

Clearly, then, the crisis of global hunger is not driven by overpopulation. Rather, it is driven by corruption, fostered by drought, abetted by the ongoing abortion of baby girls, and-perhaps most cruelly-aggravated by an environmental extremism that prioritizes the purity of a rice kernel to the survival of a malnourished child.

People are neither blight nor a disease. They are image-bearers of God. They produce with their hands and their minds, in ways so astonishingly creative and unexpected that the combination of innovation, liberty, and natural resources mean a higher standard of living across the board.

There is no more great a resource than a person. Let's work to keep our supply of that resource abundant, and the healthy families that should produce them strong.

Rob Schwarzwalder serves as Senior Vice President for the Family Research Council. He oversees the Communications, Policy and Church Ministries teams. He previously served as chief-of-staff to a Member of the House Natural Resources Committee.



[1] "2012 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics," World Hunger Education Service, accessed on September 5, 2012 , http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm.

[2] "As world's population grows, hunger stalks more of its residents," Los Angeles Times, accessed on September 5, 2012 , http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-population-matters3-20120726,0,4232331,full.story.

[3] "As world's population grows, hunger stalks more of its residents."

[4] "Fertility Levels and Trends in Countries with Intermediate Levels of Fertility," Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations Secretariat, a ccessed on September 5, 2012, http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/completingfertility/RevisedFFPSPOPDIVpaper.PDF.

[5] "UNFPA Accused of Ignoring Sex-Selection Abortions," LifeNews.com, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://www.lifenews.com/2011/08/19/unfpa-accused-of-ignoring-sex-selection-abortions/.

[6] "The demographic future of Europe - from challenge to opportunity," Europa, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/employment_and_social_policy/situation_in_europe/c10160_en.htm.

[7] Nicholas Eberstadt, "The Demographic Future," Foreign Affairs, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66805/nicholas-eberstadt/the-demographic-future.

[8] "Hunger," World Food Programme, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://www.wfp.org/hunger/faqs.

[9] "Episode 3: Food: There's lots of it," Overpopulation is a myth.com, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://overpopulationisamyth.com/food-theres-lots-it.

[10] "2012 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics"

[11] Tristan McConnell, "Food aid ripe for corruption reports Transparency International," Global Post, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/africa/food-aid-ripe-corruption-reports-transparency-international.

[12] Katharine Houreld, "AP Exclusive: How Somalia famine aid went astray," Yahoo! News, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://news.yahoo.com/ap-exclusive-somalia-famine-aid-went-astray-114402965.html.

[13] Aleksandr Shkolnikov, "Anti-Corruption Views - Corruption and the food crisis in the Horn of Africa," Trust Law, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://www.trust.org/trustlaw/blogs/anti-corruption-views/corruption-and-the-food-crisis-in-the-horn-of-africa/.

[14] Henry I. Miller, "Norman Borlaug: The Genius Behind The Green Revolution," Forbes, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/henrymiller/2012/01/18/norman-borlaug-the-genius-behind-the-green-revolution/.

[15] Ari Levaux, "The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods," The Atlantic, accessed on September 6, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/01/the-very-real-danger-of-genetically-modified-foods/251051/.

[16] Alister Doyle, "Africa can feed itself within a generation: study," Reuters, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/12/02/us-climate-africa-idUSTRE6B114R20101202.

[17] Mark Tran, "Africa can feed the world," The Guardian, Poverty Matters Blog, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jul/27/africa-potential-to-feed-world.

[18] "Norman Ernest Borlaug," Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004, Encyclopedia.com, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404700792.html.

[19] Miller, "Norman Borlaug."

[20] Ronald Bailey, "Billions Served: Norman Borlaug interviewed by Ronald Bailey," Reason.com, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://reason.com/archives/2000/04/01/billions-served-norman-borlaug/1.

[21] Jim Lacey, "The Moral High Ground," National Review Online, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/276395/moral-high-ground-jim-lacey.

[22] Norman E. Borlaug, "Science vs. Hysteria," The Wall Street Journal, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB1043197517247186584-search,00.html.

[23] Matt Ridley, "Apocalypse Not: Here's Why You Shouldn't Worry About End Times," Wired Science, accessed on September 5, 2012, http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/08/ff_apocalypsenot/all/.

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Rob Schwarzwalder Senior Vice-President

Rob Schwarzwalder serves as Senior Vice President for the Family Research Council. He oversees the Communications, Policy and Church Ministries teams and manages the Policy (Full Bio)

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