Wednesday, 16 November 2011

7 billion today, this week, or this month or...?

This week the world’s population will hit 7 billion people. Actually it may have already occurred, or may occur in the next few months, but more on that later.

Put simply 7 billion mouths are a lot to feed, and given some 13 million of us are currently facing starvation in the famine devastating the Horn of Africa it is a daunting prospect. Another 1 billion of we people live in hunger and poverty every day.

(above: US Census Bureau chart illustrating world population change in history)

And to make matters more complicated our population is projected to grow by another 2 billion people in the next forty years.

To put some perspective to that, in 1900 the world’s population was an estimated 1.6 billion. In 2000 it was 6 billion. It has taken just over a decade to add the next billion souls.

Which raises a couple of questions:
  • Are the estimates of an extra 2 billion people over the next forty years right (after all that is adding to our population at half the rate of the past decade)?
  • And how exactly will we feed these people, given most of the new additions will be in developing countries?

To answer the first question the main difference is that as countries become more developed birth rates decline. This is in part due to better governance, support mechanisms for older people (who do not have as large a number of children so as to ensure one or more can support them in old age), stronger institutions and the like.

The second question has an answer too – we simply need to produce more food than we do now.

The good news is that food production has risen dramatically over the past 50 years. Gross world food production has risen from 1.84 billion tonnes, to 4.38 billion tonnes, an increase of 138 per cent during the past 5 decades. Agricultural research played a huge part in this.

Some of those gains were in the developed world, through improved practices coinciding with the move to larger farm sizes and economies of scale.

Much of the gains were also in the developing world, or parts of it. Asia, led by China and South Asia, led by the Green Revolution efforts centred on India, have increased production.

Africa is, to borrow an old term, still somewhat of the dark continent when it comes to science illuminating the possibilities of increased production.

Gradually though things are changing.

The developing world today accounts for 95 per cent of all population growth. Consequently, by 2050, less developed regions will account for 86 per cent of world population.

So the developing world is the place where gains in food production are needed the most, both now and into the future.

The challenges are numerous, but getting the benefits of agricultural research to Africa, and elsewhere where hunger persists must play a part in our future food production plans.

Africa has the greatest potential, both in available farm land still to be cultivated, and in the gap between current and possible yields, to grow more food. Potential also exists in other parts of the developing world.

To feed all those extra people we need to unlock this potential. Fortunately we have the tools to do this.

Population growth will happen regardless, we either ensure people can eat, or watch more suffer in hunger and poverty.

And to answer the question of when we actually hit the 7 billion mark, well demographers fixed October 31 as the day. There is a margin for error in determining such a large number, of around 1-2 per cent.

Which in real terms translates to around 6 months either way.

To get a feel for how quickly our population is growing visit

Warren Page, ACIAR Communications Manager

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