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Food, population and the post-2015 development agenda

July 17, 2014

Meeting the growing demand for food may be the world’s single greatest challenge, but it is part of a much larger complex of problems, all relating to the overuse of our planet and, ultimately, to the larger challenge posed by population growth.

Addressing that challenge is both a moral and a global imperative. That’s why earlier this month, the Population Institute unveiled “Population by the Numbers,” a series of compelling factoids focusing on population and its implications for economic and human development.

As the United Nations prepares for its General Assembly in September, many questions remain about the new global development agenda that is emerging from high-level negotiations among world leaders. For the past 14 years, the Millennium Development Goals have played a leading role in shaping the international development agenda. But the MDGs expire at the end of next year and progress toward a post-2015 agenda has been kept tightly under wraps.

For the past two years, work on the post-2015 development agenda has proceeded on two parallel tracks, one focused on an extension of the MDGs in some form and the other on a set of sustainable development goals that are meant to be global. A common expectation has always been that the two tracks would converge at some point. That hope is now crystalizing, and it appears increasingly likely that the United Nations will meld the two processes together in the course of the next year.

Convergence, of course, makes eminent sense. What lasting good is development if it’s not sustainable? And there are plenty of reasons to question whether the current development path is sustainable. The warning signs are all around us. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising relentlessly even as the indicators of climate change become more pronounced. Water tables in many areas are falling while rivers and lakes are shrinking. Deserts in Asia and Africa are expanding while tropical forests in Southeast Asia are being chopped down to accommodate the world’s demand for hardwoods and palm oil.

Food security is a growing concern as the number of chronically hungry in Africa shows no real sign of abating and food prices persist near historical peaks. Commodity prices for energy, metals and minerals remain stubbornly high as demand for resources and the costs of extraction continue to rise. Ocean fisheries are still collapsing and the very chemistry of the oceans themselves is changing. And, despite international efforts, the rate of biodiversity loss remains high, and scientists now warn of a Sixth Mass Extinction.

If sustainability is the great unmet challenge of the 21st century, and it certainly appears so, we must renew the international community’s commitment to universal access to family planning and reproductive health services, as presently enshrined in MDG 5b. If the gains made in meeting the other MDG targets are to be preserved and built upon, girls and women must be able, free from coercion, to space and limit their pregnancies. That requires more than improved access to contraceptives; we must also dismantle the informational and cultural barriers to reproductive choice, including misinformation about the dangers of contraceptive use, and male and religious opposition to family planning.

On July 11, the world observed the 25th anniversary of World Population Day. In the past quarter century, the world’s fertility rate has fallen from 3.3 children per woman to 2.5 children, but the world population during that same period increased by 2 billion, and, if fertility rates were to remain constant, world population would grow from 7.2 billion today to an estimated 27 billion by the end of the century.

Fortunately, demographers believe that fertility rates will continue to fall. The general consensus is that world population will rise to about 9.5 billion by mid-century and to about 11 billion by the end of the century. Even that projected growth path, however, is not sustainable. The Global Footprint Network estimates that we are already overusing the world’s renewable resources by 50 percent and that by 2030, we will need two Earths to sustain us in the long haul.

Continued progress in eliminating severe poverty and hunger will be in severe jeopardy unless we also pay more attention to resource constraints, biophysical capacity and planetary limits. As part of the SDGs, every country should undertake a realistic assessment of the growing demand for, and the shrinking availability of, resources such as water, arable land and forests. Just as no one would think of driving a car or flying a plane without a fuel gauge, national planners need to have a clearer understanding of the physical limits to growth.

In the past half century, numerous countries cashed in their “demographic dividend” and prospered as smaller families boosted private savings and improved the worker/dependency ratio. Now, taking into account resource scarcity and the effects of climate change, the benefits of smaller families are greater than ever. Family planning improves the health, wellbeing and resilience of families, their communities and their countries.

Looking ahead, there are many development challenges, but ensuring that women can space or limit their pregnancies is not just a moral imperative, it’s a global imperative.

This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on July 17, 2014 on Devex.

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