Rising food prices raise spectre of Malthus

Posted: 16 March 2011

Author: John Bongaarts

As the human family approaches 7 billion and as food prices rise, the spectre of Malthus with his warning of widespread famine has reappeared. Here the distinguished demographer, John Bongaarts, argues that the poor of the world are, indeed, vulnerable unless a greater effort is made to meet women’s needs and slow population growth.

Pessimists have believed that humanity is doomed due to overpopulation and overconsumption ever since economist and scholar Thomas Robert Malthus forecasted this fate over two centuries ago. Conversely, optimists have argued that technological innovation will improve standards of living and that population growth is at most a minor issue.

FAO Food Price Index
The FAO Food Price Index is a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities.

But, now, rising food costs have once again raised fears that the population is outstripping the planet’s food supplies. Although the recent price spikes are partially the result of short-term factors – droughts, floods, speculative investing, low reserves, and hoarding– food prices are likely to remain high as rising demand runs into supply constraints. While higher food prices will have a negative effect everywhere, they will have a particularly devastating impact on the poor, who already spend a large part of their incomes on sustenance and will be forced to spend more.

On the supply side, environmental constraints impede our ability to grow more food. In much of the world the most productive land is already being used for agriculture or covered by artificial structures; the best river sites have been dammed; and the benefits of the technological advances in agriculture production, known as the Green Revolution, have been heavily exploited. Further, in many densely populated countries water shortages are acute.

The latest threat comes from rising energy prices. Energy is an integral part of every step in the food production system – cultivation, harvesting, transportation, refrigeration, packaging, and distribution. Even some of fertilizers and pesticides are hydrocarbon-based; consequently these products are becoming more costly as well. Another restriction to our food supply is the recent diversion of crops formerly meant for our dinner tables are now winding up as biofuels.

Although supply-side measures such as cultivating more land, investing in agricultural infrastructure and technology, and subsidizing farming inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides, and water can help raise food production, these approaches come with high environmental costs, including deforestation, exhaustion of fresh water resources, soil erosion, and water, soil, and air pollution.

Consumption soaring

On the demand side, food consumption is expected to increase by 50 percent over the next two decades because of population growth and higher incomes. As developing countries climb out of poverty, diets become more calorie-and protein-rich, and consumption of animal products grows.

World population, now near 7 billion, is expected to rise to 9.2 billion in 2050. Nearly all this addition to population will occur in the poorest regions of the world. Prospects are grimmest for the poorest countries with limited natural resources and extremely rapid population growth, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite the AIDS epidemic, sub-Saharan Africa is expected to add more than a billion to its current population.

Children, Erema, Niger Delta
Children, Erema, Niger Delta, © Stakeholder Democracy Network

Consider Niger. Even the paltry amount of arable land remaining is threatened by desertification. The current population lives on the edge of famine. Yet by 2050 Niger’s population is projected to more than triple in size — from 16 million to 58 million. If left unaided, many of the poorest countries, like Niger, face a Malthusian future. Only massive food aid could stave off this prospect.

In addition to the depletion of environmental resources to grow food and provide rising living standards, rapid population growth and its antecedent, high fertility, have a range of adverse health and economic effects. The negative consequences of unintended excessive childbearing include poor health for women and children, slow economic growth and entrenched poverty, overcrowded schools and clinics and an overburdened infrastructure, as well as civil strife caused by high unemployment and inequality among rapidly growing young populations.

Reducing population growth and high fertility by investing in voluntary family planning programs and by improving education, especially of girls, is essential. While the benefits of these initiatives were widely recognized in the 1970s and 1980s, interest and international support has declined since the mid-1990s. In 2005 only 0.2 per cent of official development assistance from all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries was allocated to family planning supplies and services, a 50 percent decline from the 1995 level. (Another 0.4 percent was spent on other reproductive health services and 3.1 percent on HIV/AIDS).

Several factors were responsible for this downward funding trend:

  1. the belief that fertility declines already underway and high AIDS mortality would soon halt population growth without the need for additional government intervention;
  2. the failure of earlier apocalyptic predictions such as worldwide famine, to materialize;
  3. opposition of conservative governments and institutions, such as the Bush Administration and the Vatican;
  4. funding competition from the global AIDS epidemic; and
  5. negative reactions to coercive birth control measure — and fears that more would follow — like those carried out in China and India.

This cluster of issues moved family planning from a position of high priority in international development programmes to a second - or even third - tier ranking by the middle of the present decade.

Resurging interest


It is important to note that voluntary family planning programmes are highly valued by women. Each year 75 million unintended pregnancies occur in the developing world (out of a total of 186 million). Most of these end in abortions and/or have detrimental health and economic effects for women and their families.

A family receives family planning advice at Kivunge Hospital, Zanzibar.
A family receives family planning advice at Kivunge Hospital, Zanzibar. Photo © Sala Lewis/UNFPA

Over one hundred million women have an unmet need for contraception. (They don’t want to get pregnant but are not using contraception.) They are constrained by their lack of knowledge about family planning, limited access to supplies and services, the cost of contraception, fear of side effects, and opposition from spouses and other family members. But good family planning programmes are effective in reducing these obstacles, thus reducing unintended pregnancies and birth rates.

Fortunately there is a resurgence of interest in family planning as its multiple benefits for health, poverty reduction and the environment are again recognized. The US government has proposed a substantial increase in next year’s funding for international family planning activities and the World Bank is implementing a major new Reproductive Health Action Plan. For international donors the past neglect of family planning programs was a missed opportunity.

Other OECD governments should follow the lead of the Obama administration and the World Bank and increase investments in family planning. These efforts can substantially reduce population growth, which in turn has a beneficial impact on human welfare and the environment.

It is also time to consider measures to dampen the growth of demand for food by focusing on overconsumption in many rich countries. The tremendous consumption of factory-farmed meat and dairy products is particularly problematic. The production of one pound of meat requires several pounds of cereals for animal feed. Meat eating is the environmental equivalent of driving a low-mileage SUV. Both satisfy the consumer but damage the environment and reduce the well-being of others.

These products should be priced to recognize these deleterious effects. At the very least, government subsidies to farmers for the production of animal-based foods should be eliminated. Taxes on animal products make sense for the same reason as carbon taxes: they protect the environment and benefit the community. Massive government subsidies for the production of bio-fuels from food crops should also be eliminated.

Ultimately the current price shocks in the food supply have the potential to lead us to toward decisive action. Prompt, substantial investments in family planning and education for girls as well as abandoning policies that incentivize overconsumption offer another opportunity to stave off a Malthusian end.

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Dr John Bongaarts is Vice President and Distinguished Scholar at the Population Council in New York. His research has focused on a range of population and health issues, including population policy options in both the developed and developing world.