Some thoughts on overpopulation

Written in 2014.

The human population of the earth has grown rapidly in recent centuries, from around 1 billion in 1804 to an estimated 7 billion in 2012 (1). It is predicted that this will continue to rise to between 9 and 10 billion by 2050, at which point many say the population will level out (although this is far from certain).(2)

This increased population puts a large strain on the earth’s natural resources in many different ways, and we are already suffering many of the effects. Between 2011 and 2013 it was estimated that around 842 million people in the world are suffering from chronic undernourishment, with many more than this suffering from lack of proper nutrition(3). Some people will point out that we already produce enough food to feed the world — that the problem is not that we produce an insufficient quantity of food, but that poverty and global inequity means that many in the world do not have the land or resources required to grow their own food, nor the money to purchase food from others. This is correct(4), and there is much work that can be done to help to rectify this situation, including investment in public infrastructure, land reform and community farming projects, access to irrigation and equipment, and access to education(5), as well as projects to reduce corruption and build a strong civil society. It is also the case that we waste a huge proportion of the food we produce — in the UK alone we throw away over 4.2 million tonnes of household food & drink annually(6) and organisations including the UK Government’s Foresight program (7) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation(8) estimate that globally we waste around a third of total food produced for human consumption.

However, even with an economic and political system better geared towards equitable distribution and economic access to food, and with a drastic reduction in food waste, it will still be a serious challenge for us to feed an extra 2 to 3 billion people in 2050(9). This situation is exasperated by changes in global diet — the developed world has for a long time been increasing its consumption of animal protein (meat and dairy), and this trend is now being emulated by those in developing countries as they aspire to Western diets and lifestyles. According to a UN report from the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, nearly half of the world’s cereal production is currently used to produce animal feed (enough calories to feed 1.3 billion people)(10) .The rearing of livestock uses significantly more land and water then producing grain and vegetables, and puts significant strain on our environment and resources.(11)

Climate change further complicates things — increased climate extremes are already having a negative effect on food production in many areas(12), and as we proceed towards (and most likely far beyond) a 2°c rise in global temperature(13) above pre-industrial levels this situation will only get worse. Suggestions that we can use genetic engineering to create crops more resistant to the changing climate may hold some truth, however making further drastic changes to the world’s ecosystems brings us into dangerous and unknown territory, and many ethical questions relating to GM crops (mostly centred around patents and ownership) remain unresolved.(14)

Some argue that intensification of agriculture and technological innovations can bridge the gap and ensure that we can feed the rising population. Many, however, ignore the stresses that intensive agriculture places on our world’s ecosystems and non-renewable resources. We face huge and pressing threats from groundwater and aquifer depletion, soil erosion and degradation, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, pollution, global warming, loss of pollinators and fertiliser shortages, among others. (15)

While our food production techniques have made great strides in terms of yield and output, this has come at the cost of sustainability — put simply, the current farming methods cannot be maintained indefinitely; never mind intensified. To address the challenges faced by our environment we need to be dedicating land to conservation in order to restore the organisms and ecosystems which provide vital ecosystem services including oxygen production, carbon sequestration, provision of soil nutrients, habitats for pollinators and water retention.(16) We cannot continue to use fossil fuels for the production of land & water polluting fertilisers, or to spray harmful chemical pesticides all over our crops and land. Our rapid expansion in numbers and the agriculture associated with it has massively shifted the natural systems and processes which are vital for our continued existence(17) and our ability to feed ourselves in the long run, and if we continue further down the same road we may reach a tipping point from which we can never return. Further strains on land use are added by the need to generate energy from bio-fuels and solar PV as we move away from fossil fuels.

Every human being on this planet has the fundamental right to access to food of the quantity and nutritional quality required for a healthy life. Every woman on this world has the right to control her own reproductive cycle.It is up to women and couples to decide how many children they will have, and any suggestions of population controls (such as a one-child policy) are illiberal, immoral and unworkable.

On the other hand, there are ways in which we can help to address the issue of rising population. Key factors of population growth include poverty, the lack of women’s rights, lack of education and religious rules (such as prohibition of contraception and abortion).

The links between poverty and high population growth have been widely acknowledged, and include lack of access to contraception, high infant mortality rates leading to women having many children, and households relying on the labour of their children to live (and relying on their children as their only means of security and income in old age)(18). Therefore to address the food security and environmental challenges posed by a growing population, addressing global poverty is perhaps the biggest issue. At a time when many are lobbying our Government to reduce spending on International Development, it is essential that we increase spending far beyond our current international commitment of 0.7% of GDP and ensure that this money is spent on combating poverty, reducing inequality and providing access to education rather than — as is currently the case — being directed towards corporate takeovers and land-grabs which make the rich richer and do little to alleviate the poverty of the world’s most disadvantaged people(19) (20). Those of us who believe that the developed world should use our significant resources to help end global poverty should make this clear to our elected representatives through letters, petitions, demonstrations and direct action — not just for the strong moral imperative of improving the lives of those who are suffering, but also for our own good and self-preservation. We can also help this effort by donating our own money and time to charities and NGOs working towards international development and social justice, such as the brilliant World Development Movement.

Gender inequality is another important factor on population growth. Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director and Assistant-Secretary-General of UN Women says that ‘where women are denied full legal, social and economic rights, such as education, secure livelihoods, property ownership and credit, they are forced to rely on childbearing for survival, status and security’(21). While gender inequality is a worldwide problem, it is often most pronounced in areas of extreme poverty. Overpopulation in itself exacerbates poverty and gender inequality, and so the three areas are causally and cyclically linked(22) (23). By focussing our attention on alleviating poverty, and putting special emphasis on education of girls, promotion of equal gender rights and sex education we can begin to address some of the key root causes of overpopulation and the threats that it poses not just to the well-being and dignity of those living in poverty, but to the vital ecosystems on which we all rely for our food, water, air and climate.

A final and important point for consideration is our own children. In a world of increasing population and strains on resources, it is time for each of us to play our part by thinking responsibly about how many children we will have. There are estimated 153 million children in the world living without parental care(24), and many of these are in need of adoptive parents, including over 6000 in the UK(25). By limiting the amount of children we as individuals choose to conceive, and perhaps by considering adoption as an alternative to having multiple children, we can make a positive impact on the global population challenge and become a part of the solution.

1. UN The World at 6 Billion — 2012

2. UN World Population Prospects: the 2012 Revision — 2012

3. UN FAO The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013–2013

4. World food program website (http://www.wfp.org/hunger/causes)

5. UN Human Rights Council — Report submitted by Special Rapporteur on the right to food — 2010

6. WRAP Household food and drink waste report — 2012

7. UK Government Office for Science/Foresight report The Future of Food and Farming — 2011

8. UN FAO Global food losses and food waste — 2011

9. UK Government Office for Science/Foresight report The Future of Food and Farming — 2011

10. UN Human Rights Council — Report submitted by Special Rapporteur on the right to food — 2010

11. UN Human Rights Council — Report submitted by Special Rapporteur on the right to food — 2010

12. IPCC Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability 2014

13. IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis 2013

14. World Development Movement website (http://www.wdm.org.uk/genetically-modified-organisms)

15. UN Human Rights Council — Report submitted by Special Rapporteur on the right to food — 2010

16. UN Human Rights Council — Report submitted by Special Rapporteur on the right to food — 2010

17. David Attenborough — Planet and Population — speech, 2011

18. UN FPA — Causes and Consequences of Population Growth in Mozambique — 2011

19. War on Want Hunger Games 2012

20. World Development Movement website (http://www.wdm.org.uk/aid/what-problem)

21. PSI website (http://www.psi.org/impact-magazine/2011/09/domino-effect-gender-equality)

22. UN FPA — Causes and Consequences of Population Growth in Mozambique — 2011

23. http://rprogress.org/training_manual/20-PopulationPoverty.pdf

24. WorldOphans website (http://www.worldorphans.org/) and various other NGOs

25. UK Government Department for Education adoption maps