Page: Population Wealth Health and Food

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Population, Wealth, Health and Food

March 6, 2011

Population poser

IS “over-population” the cause of hunger? Yet nobody would suggest that such densely-populated places like Hong Kong, Singapore or Holland are suffering from a lack of food and should “cull” their people.

Taking Population Seriously, a book published by Food First (, the US-based Institute for Food and Development, points out that it is illogical to see population as the cause of hunger – China has only half the crop land per person that India has, yet many more people in India are starving than in China.

Indeed, StarTwo’s Jan 24 cover story on the consequences of the world’s increasing population, 7 billion and counting, that questioned “how long can the world hold up?”, noted that population growth may not be the real problem.

The United Nations predicts that the number of the world’s peoples will plateau at 9 billion around 2050 before slowly starting to fall. And there are more than enough resources to feed the world even then, according to a report published in January by France’s national agricultural and development research agencies.

The problem is inequality: one American, on average, consumes as many resources as 250 Ethiopians.

In contrast to population growth, economic growth is limitless. In 2008, environmentalist and author George Monbiot pointed out in an article in British daily The Guardian that many economists predict that the global economy will continue growing by about 3% a year this century. At that growth rate, by 2100, global consumption will increase by about 1,600%.

“This means that in the 21st century we will use 16 times as many economic resources as human beings have consumed since we came down from the trees,” he wrote.

Smallholders in many countries feed rural populations. If they lose their lands to agribusiness companies looking to plant biofuel crops, who will grow food?

By 2115, the cumulative economic growth will be 3,200%, and by 2138, it will be 6,400%.

“As resources are finite, this is of course impossible, but it is not hard to see that rising economic activity – not human numbers – is the immediate and overwhelming threat,” Monbiot pointed out.

But why can’t the heaving masses of black, brown and yellow-skinned peoples have fewer babies and eat less so that more corn can be burnt as biofuel in big 4WDs or fed to cows to produce fillet mignon steaks?

It’s no coincidence, wrote Monbiot, that most of those obsessed that population growth is a “problem” are post-reproductive wealthy white men – “It’s about the only environmental issue for which they can’t be blamed,” he noted.

Well, actually some non-Western countries have reduced birth rates – as they become richer. StarTwo’s story noted that South Korea has a birth rate of 1.2 while Taiwan is at 1.0, so these two countries are “literally dying” demographically. And China’s population is expected to peak in 2020.

And surely we Malaysians have also seen anecdotal evidence of the fact that as people become more educated and rich, they tend to have fewer children.

This is the point authors Frances Moore Lappe and Rachel Schurman make in Food First’ Taking Population Seriously. In India, Latin America, and the Philippines, land has become concentrated in richer farmers’ hands, and they might prefer to grow lucrative crops for export to affluent countries rather than food for the poor (who have little money to pay for it, as they lack jobs with decent wages and are often trapped in debt).

When people are trapped in poverty by social inequality, they have more babies because it is the only resource left to them. In Java, for instance, a seven-year old boy can already take care of the family’s chickens and ducks and, at nine, he can cut grass for cows and goats and even harvest paddy. Or kids that age might scavenge through garbage for recyclable items or beg from tourists in Manila.

Poor families also hope that one of their many children will be clever enough to get an education, get a city job and send money home. This “lottery mentality” is worsened in countries with poor healthcare when many babies die before five. The inferior status of women also means that they have no other options outside “perpetual motherhood”, especially if the dominant husband wants it that way.

So what are the solutions? Lappe and Schurman point out that when the poor (especially women) have access to education and health services, and when there is more social equality, automatically there is less need to have so many children for old-age security.

Over the last 50 years, population growth has declined in places where poorer and less powerful people have been given a fairer deal. This includes Thailand (where women have a more elevated status and are getting more educated), China (where land was redistributed to the poor in the 1950s) and Kerala in South India (where the state government has ensured the poor were given land to farm and subsidises essential goods such as rice and kerosene).

“Rapid population growth is a moral crisis because it reflects the denial of survival resources – land, food, jobs,” say Lappe and Shurman.

People have fewer babies when they have more wealth, health-care and education for their social security.In short, blaming “over-population” for hunger is like blaming “too much rain” when KL’s roads are flooded – it ignores the role of human policies.

Source: The Star

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