Read part one, on the food-population-climate vulnerability dynamics of Malawi and other “hotspots,” here.
Too often, discussions about future food security make only a passing reference to population growth. It is frequently framed as an inevitable force, a foregone conclusion – and a single future number is reported as gospel: nine billion people in 2050. But adhering to a single path of future population growth misses the opportunity to think more holistically about food security challenges and solutions. Several recent food security reports illustrate this oft-overlooked issue.
Accounting for Population a Challenge
Oxfam International’s Growing a Better Future: Food Justice in a Resource-Constrained World is a thorough and fascinating examination of failures in our current food system and future challenges related to production, equity, and resilience. It reports newly-commissioned research, carried out by modelers at the Institute of Development Studies, to assess future agricultural productivity and food prices given the anticipated impacts of climate change.
But both the modeling work and the report text utilize a single projection for population growth: the UN’s 2008 medium variant projection of 9.1 billion by 2050 (which has since been revised by the UN up to 9.3 billion). Early on, the report does recognize some degree of uncertainty about this number: “Greater investment in solutions that increase women’s empowerment and security – by improving access to education and health care in particular – will slow population growth and achieve stabilization at a lower level.” But such investments do not appear in the report’s overall recommendations or Oxfam’s food security agenda. This is perhaps a missed opportunity, since the range of possibilities for future population growth is wide: the UN’s low variant for 2050 is 8.1 billion, and the high variant is 10.6 billion.
Food Security, Farming, and Climate Change to 2050: Scenarios, Results, and Policy Options is another frequently-cited report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute in 2010. In recognizing that economic growth and demographic change have important implications for future food security, IFPRI researchers modeled multiple scenarios for the future: an “optimistic” scenario which embodies high GDP growth and low population growth, a “pessimistic” scenario with low GDP growth and high population growth, and a “baseline” scenario which incorporates moderate GDP growth and the UN’s medium population projection. Each of these scenarios was then combined with five different climate change scenarios to better understand a range of possible futures.
Using different socioeconomic scenarios enabled researchers to better understand the significance of socioeconomic variables for future food security outcomes. The first key message from the report is that “broad-based economic development is central to improvements in human well-being, including sustainable food security and resilience to climate change.” This focus on economic development is based in part on the “optimistic scenario,” which counts on high GDP and low population growth (translating to high rates of per capita GDP growth).
Unfortunately, the socioeconomic scenario construction for this analysis doesn’t allow for an independent assessment of the significance of slower population growth, since high population growth is paired only with low GDP and lower population growth is paired only with high GDP. Therefore, none of the report’s recommendations includes reference to reproductive health, women’s empowerment, or other interventions that would contribute directly to a slower population growth path.
Expanding the Conversation to Better Inform Policy
Without a more nuanced treatment of population projections in technical analysis and popular reporting on food security, decision-makers in the realm of food security may not be exposed to the idea that population growth, a factor so critical in many areas where food security is already a challenge, is a phenomenon that is responsive to policy and programmatic interventions – interventions that are based on human rights and connected to well-established and accepted development goals.
There are some positive signs that this conversation is evolving. A new climate change, food security, and population model developed by the Futures Group enables policymakers and program managers to quickly and easily assess the impact of slower population growth on a country’s future food requirements and rates of childhood malnutrition. In the case of Ethiopia, for example, the model demonstrates that by 2050, a slower population growth path would make up for the caloric shortfall that is likely to arise from the impact of climate change on agriculture and would cut in half the number of underweight children.
And recently, we’ve begun to see some of this more nuanced treatment of population, family planning, and food security linkages in a riveting, year-long reporting series (though perhaps unfortunately named), Food for 9 Billion, a collaboration between American Public Media’s Marketplace, Homelands Productions, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and PBS NewsHour.
In January, reporter Sam Eaton highlighted the success of integrated population-health-environment programs in the Philippines, such as those initiated by PATH Foundation Philippines, that are seeing great success in delivering community-based programs that promote food security through a combination of fisheries management and family planning service delivery. Reporting from the Philippines in an in-depth piece for PBS NewsHour, Eaton concluded:
So maybe solving the world’s food problem isn’t just about solving the world’s food problem. It’s also about giving women the tools they want, so they can make the decisions they want – here in the world’s poorest places.Making clear connections of this nature between population issues and the most pressing challenges of our day may be the missing link that will help to mobilize the political will and financial resources to finally fully meet women’s needs for family planning around the world – an effort that, if started today, can have ongoing benefits that will become only more significant over time. Integrating reproductive health services into food security programs and strategies is an important start.
Back in Malawi, just before we turned off the highway to the Lilongwe airport, I asked the taxi driver to pull over in front of a big billboard. We both smiled as we looked at the huge government-sponsored image of a woman embracing an infant. The billboard proclaimed: “No woman should die while giving life. Everyone has a role to play.” Exactly. The reproductive health services that save women’s lives are the same services that can slow population growth and bring food security within closer reach.