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Overpopulation threatens the world’s food supply

Overpopulation threatens the world’s food supply thumbnail

That was the front-page headline in the New York Times last Thursday, August 8th, announcing a new report from the IPCC, “Climate Change and Land.” I’m kidding, of course. The actual headline read “Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns,” and the article did not mention population once.

A young girl stands amid the freshly made graves of 70 children many of whom died of malnutrition. Source: Oxfam East Africa

By Philip Cafaro

The looming problem of insufficient food is largely caused by rapid population growth, and, as the IPCC’s last Assessment Report stated, population growth and economic growth are the primary drivers of climate change, through increased greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation (IPCC 2014). Population growth simultaneously increases the number of mouths we will need to feed in coming decades while threatening food output (Hall et al. 2017) through climate change, ocean acidification, and other global ecological stressors.

While the Times failed to mention the leading driver of global food insecurity in its article, its readers were less reticent. Maybe I missed it, but where in the article is there a reference to a very important factor in inadequate food supply: lack of population control? asked G.S. from Dutchess County, in the second most “liked” comment on the piece. I read somewhere recently that world population growth is somewhere in the vicinity of 70,000,000 per year, wrote Jim Mc from Savannah (actually it’s over 80 million per year). That’s like adding the population of Dallas, Texas, every week! Growth like that is unsustainable in even the medium term. Until and unless that changes there is very little reason for optimism about the future of the planet. This comment, too, garnered many hundreds of “likes.”

To be fair, Christopher Flavelle, the Times reporter, was only following the lead of the IPCC itself. In its press release introducing the report, the sole mention of population was the following:  “Land must remain productive to maintain food security as the population increases and the negative impacts of climate change on vegetation increase.” Here we see the usual fatalistic message: population will increase, inevitably, therefore we have to accommodate it.

Barring catastrophe, the global population certainly will increase for a while. But the extent of this increase and when it peaks depend on us: both our individual fertility decisions and our public policy choices in more than 150 countries with increasing populations. The most recent United Nations projections show the world population increasing to 10.9 billion people by 2100, with no end to growth in sight (UN 2019). But if couples around the world average half a child fewer, the world population will peak in the 2050s around 8.9 billion, while if we have half a child more, the global population will reach an incredible 15.6 billion people in 2100. Obviously, our population choices in the coming decades will make a huge difference to future food availability—for us and for other species (Crist et al. 2017). In Sub-Saharan Africa, with the world’s faster growing populations and worst hunger and malnutrition, only about one in four couples use modern contraception. In many places, it is simply not available. Yet the IPPC avoids suggestions to tackle food demand directly by limiting population growth; for example, by making contraception available in order to avoid unwanted pregnancies, which still account for over 40% of pregnancies worldwide (Bearak et al. 2018).

Source: United Nations, DESA, World Population Prospects 2019

In contrast, in response to the Times story, there were many comments recognizing that population growth can be stopped and needs to be stopped. David from Maryland wrote, we know that Earth will soon be able to support fewer people. Now is the time for a major international effort to reverse human population growth by making contraception available to every woman on Earth who wants it, along with international education programs to encourage family planning, as part of our getting serious about climate change. 396 readers (and counting) agreed. Unfortunately, increasing contraceptive availability is nowhere to be found among the dozens of suggestions for action in the IPCC report itself.

Instead, as its “Summary for Policymakers” makes clear, the report mostly focuses on efficiency improvements: above all, improvements in agricultural productivity. There is room for many, many suggestions for increased efficiency in agriculture and land use. Some space is also given to addressing demand; for example, by making ethical appeals to eat less meat. The Times dutifully reports some of these suggestions, including the last one, to which Clotario from NYC responds: Yes, I am sure encouraging people to eat less meat will have a major impact. Problem solved! Future generations will surely look back on articles like this to giggle at our time’s laughable naivete. Too many people, too much fixation on economic growth, too many resources being consumed. The real work that needs doing is incompatible with the international order, liberal democracy, personal self-determination and competitive economics. So, I guess nothing will be done.

Reading the report’s “Summary,” it is easy for a population activist to share Clotario’s sense of futility. The neglect of population is baked into the analytical framework of the report, which relies on the IPCC’s familiar series of five different “shared socio-economic pathways” (SSPs) to imagine different global development approaches for the coming decades. These are the only places where population is mentioned in a consequential way, and on the positive side they do show straightforwardly that pathways with less population growth will lead to less climate change and a better ability to feed people. But the SSPs themselves tend to reject or combine all good things en masse (fewer people and greater wealth and less food waste and less inequality and less corrupt government—or the exact opposite). So readers have no sense of how important the different components are, including the population component.

Different socioeconomic pathways' effects
Source: Summary for Policymakers of the Special Report on Climate Change and Land (SRCCL)

The SSPs incorporate the demographic framework developed by Wolfgang Lutz and colleagues at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography in Vienna. KC and Lutz (2017) assume that conventional development and improved female education will rapidly end population growth everywhere in the world. This framework emphasises the great importance of education, but it does not consider the importance of family planning and contraceptive availability. Empirical studies show that both these aspects can greatly help to reduce fertility and population growth. The two main drivers of climate change and increased agricultural demand are population growth and increased per capita wealth. But later sections of the “Summary for Policymakers,” which detail numerous specific recommendations for action, contain no suggestions that directly address population growth, or that question the ecological wisdom of pursuing endless economic growth.

To be fair, the “Summary for Policymakers” does make clear that increased agricultural demands are a big part of the problem, and even occasionally notes that population growth adds to the problem of increased demand. Here is an example, from section A6: The level of risk posed by climate change depends both on the level of warming and on how population, consumption, production, technological development, and land management patterns evolve. Pathways with higher demand for food, feed, and water, more resource-intensive consumption and production, and more limited technological improvements in agriculture yields result in higher risks from water scarcity in drylands, land degradation, and food insecurity. Yet increasing demand is never dealt with in a fundamental way. Nowhere does the report say, straightforwardly, that our agricultural demands must be limited, if we hope to avoid human hunger and mass species extinction in the future.

Instead, the authors of the report are much more comfortable spouting techno-managerial optimism, as here, in section B 5: Sustainable land management, including sustainable forest management, can prevent and reduce land degradation, maintain land productivity, and sometimes reverse the adverse impacts of climate change on land degradation (very high confidence). It can also contribute to mitigation and adaptation (high confidence). Reducing and reversing land degradation, at scales from individual farms to entire watersheds, can provide cost effective, immediate, and long-term benefits to communities and support several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with co-benefits for adaptation (very high confidence) and mitigation (high confidence). This quotation epitomizes the overall approach of the IPCC’s experts, with their fatuous “very high confidence” in the power of good management to solve all humanity’s problems while we avoid addressing the fundamental drivers of those problems. Perhaps when the Ross Ice Shelf collapses, or Shanghai is submerged under water, the experts may recalibrate their optimism a few ticks downward. But don’t count on it.


Both the IPCC’s “Summary for Policymakers” and the Times article finish with the obligatory reminder that time is running out. As the Times puts it, Overall, the report said that the longer policymakers wait, the harder it will be to prevent a global crisis. To which gbc1 from Canada retorts, The fallacy here lies in the words “the longer policymakers wait.” These words suggest there is a person or group of persons who could make a new set of rules that would fix this problem. The truth is that increased greenhouse gas emissions and current agricultural practices are a direct result of a relentlessly increasing world population in relentless pursuit of a higher standard of living. This human behavior is a force of nature, it will not be stopped by “policy makers,” it will continue to its conclusion, which may well be widespread death and destruction continuing until a sustainable equilibrium is reached.

I am uncomfortable with the resignation here. But if policy makers won’t face the main drivers of our global environmental problems, then such resignation is justified. As the charmingly nicknamed Yer Mom, from everywhere, wrote, There is a concept in ecology of carrying capacity. The Earth’s carrying capacity is already exceeded in multiple regions. Climate change exacerbates the situation, but the fundamental problem is population growth. She was seconded by many others, including Cliff from Jefferson County, who asked, To repeat what occurs to others, where is the discussion of population control?

Many commentators on this article, looking at the scale of the problem and the scale of the evasion, expressed an exasperated fatalism. But the situation would not look so bad if we didn’t avoid the main drivers of the problems, but instead tackled them head-on. Humanity can end global population growth within the next three to four decades by educating the public about the direct effects of population increase, keeping all children in school for at least 12 years, providing contraception to everyone who wants it, and humanely incentivizing smaller families, which all have many personal and social benefits (Bongaarts 2016). Creating economies that aren’t based on endless growth will be harder, but we don’t have to do it all at once, and we need to do it in order to create ecologically sustainable societies (Daly 2014). The key, I think, is to face our situation honestly. The New York Times did not run the headline Overpopulation Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns” last Thursday. The IPCC did not issue that warning. But they could have. It would have been the truth.

28 Comments on "Overpopulation threatens the world’s food supply"

  1. Shortend on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 8:05 am 

    Wasn’t this spoken about circa 1970!?
    Suppose the yeast in the petri dish weren’t paying attention to it.

  2. Zapp on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 8:14 am 


  3. Sissyfuss on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 8:36 am 

    Cause and effect is beyond the ken of the masses and hidden by the corporatists. The messaging will not be altered even as the conditions for the majority become deplorable. Professor Bartlett would be rolling in his grave if not for his understanding of the exponential function. Only a mass dieoff can alter the trajectory of the Anthropocene. Have patience, it is on the way.

  4. Cloggie on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 9:41 am 

    “Only a mass dieoff can alter the trajectory of the Anthropocene. Have patience, it is on the way.”

    Sooner than you think.

    “The man who destroys the American Dream”

    (for the masses of the third world that is as well as the political left)

    Meet Stephen Miller, exactly my kinda guy. He doesn’t even try to hide that he defends the interests of white America only, much to the dismay of der Spiegel

    Ann Coulter and the alt-right were premature in writing off the presidency of DJT and overlooked the immense pressure he has to face on a daily basis from that darned institution known in the bowels of the internet, where no sunray will ever penetrate, as the Deep State, make that (((Deep State))). Floppy can provide the details.

    In the end of the day all efforts to keep immigrants out will be for naught, as demographics will do its merciless work, whites will be outvoted, which inevitably will make more drastic measures necessary, causing population reduction, our Siss so deeply desires. Heck he can give the good example.

  5. Davy on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 12:41 pm 

    My feeling are we might be nearing an food/water inflection point where extreme difficulties are going to hit regions and cities. We 2019 turning out to be a really bad food year. I have not seen any reports on global food stocks but considering China is losing a large amount of its pig stock and the US will probably has the worst harvest of corn and beans in recent memory I would say another year like this one and food will again be an issue at the top of peoples radar.

  6. Chrome Mags on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 2:35 pm 

    What would the world population be if:
    1) Super cheap energy
    2) $50,000. bonus for every kid you procreate as a couple in a marriage
    3) Free 5 bedroom/3 bath domicile as a bonus for any family with a 7th child
    4) Lamborghini for 10th child (see ya honey)
    5) 15 Million dollars for 15th child

    This could only occur in a world with super cheap energy ubiquitous enough to be just about anywhere in the world, and food would have to be grown in multi-story warehouses with refracted sunlight/artificial light, with no pesticides. Grow food on a massive scale and people would all have to live in skyscraper apartments.

    In that case, the population of people could exceed 50 billion. My point in this mental exercise is people do what they can and if the situation provided sufficient incentive, people would tee off on having kids. We as a species are really no different than Pavlov’s dogs.

  7. kervennic on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 5:16 pm 

    Industrialization is the main driver. Break it and all will settle down. Kaczinsky wrote it some decades ago. As long as you’ll have industrial production, you’ll have population growth.

  8. Davy on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 5:49 pm 

    “Auto Bust At Heart Of Global Downturn Hits Oil Demand” zero hedge

    “The epicenter of the auto bust is in China, India, and Germany. Production was slightly down in the US and up in Japan. Global shifts in consumer demand of autos have rippled through the supply chain, all the way to manufacturers, which by the way, is the beating heart of the global economy. “Motor manufacturers are among the world’s largest consumers of energy and raw materials, intermediate products such as plastic, steel and aluminium, and services such as marketing and advertising,” Kemp said. The industry is an essential source of durable capital goods for major manufacturing hubs, centered in Asia, Europe, and the US. It’s a producer of high-value exports for countries, able to produce high wages and drive millions of people into the middle class. But as soon as fluctuations in consumer demand are seen, the transmission of a bust cycle ripples through the supply chain and detonates at the manufacture, but can also have a more significant impact on producers of energy and other commodities. Weakness in the global auto industry has pushed global freight demand lower and led to declining demand for petrol fuels, especially diesel.”

  9. Davy on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 5:49 pm 

    “UPS Has Secretly Been Using Self-Driving Freight Trucks For Months” zero hedge

    “For the last few months, UPS has been using autonomous trucks to haul loads on a 115-mile route between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. The company announced that its venture capital arm had made a minority investment in San Diego-based autonomous software copmpany TuSimple, as confirmed with the company by Gizmodo. Their system uses nine cameras and two LIDAR sensors. TuSimple claims it can cut the average cost of shipping in a tractor-trailer by 30 percent. In an announcement about the new partnership, UPS Ventures managing partner, Todd Lewis, said the venture arm “collaborates with startups to explore new technologies and tailor them to help meet our specific needs.” -Gizmodo And according to Verge, TuSimple has implemented its autonomous techonlogy in Navistar vehicles. While the current system requires a backup human driver and an engineer, TuSimple has been working with UPS to achieve full, “Level 4” human-less autonomy.”

  10. Davy on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 5:49 pm 

    Epstein had this painting in his New York mansion moon of alabama

  11. Davy on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 5:50 pm 

    FYI I am off-line until the morning so any Davy comments tonight are juanpee.

  12. makati1 on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 6:07 pm 

    “In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply. This estimate, based on estimates from USDA’s Economic Research Service of 31 percent food loss at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010.”

    “Why Americans Lead the World in Food Waste”

    “Americans waste 150,000 tons of food each day – equal to a pound per person”

    “Why the U.S. Wastes More Food Than Almost Any Other Country”

    US food waste alone, would feed ALL if the people in the Philippines. 100,000,000 plus.

    It is not that we do not have enough, it is the system we live in that is to blame.

    “Image result for food transported around the world waste
    Fruits and vegetables, plus roots and tubers have the highest wastage rates of any food. Global quantitative food losses and waste per year are roughly 30% for cereals, 40-50% for root crops, fruits and vegetables, 20% for oil seeds, meat and dairy plus 35% for fish.”\

    Not to mention the chemicals, and poisons we ingest daily. Which will kill us first, lack of food or Monsanto? The race is on.

  13. Duncan Idaho on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 6:48 pm 

    “I doubt peak oil is now also. World oil production is about 2 million barrels per day below what it was in November 2018. Down 2 million barrels per day is definitely not a peak.”

  14. Sissyfuss on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 7:04 pm 

    I am a nonbreeding tree hugger, Cloggoebels. That’s my example. And I live a Spartan life with only the bare necessities. Right now my Schadenfreude gives me too much pleasure to check out early but I imagine that we all will be departing to nothingness well before we’re ready.

  15. Not Davy on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 8:53 pm 

    Davy on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 5:50 pm

    More juanpee bullshit.

  16. The Urgency of Now on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 9:40 pm 

    If Epstein had a painting in his New York residence as DavyTurd alleges, can you imagine the sick shit that can be found in his Ozark, MO trailer? When someone drops a dime on DavyTurd the cops are going to have a field day picking through his demented crap.

  17. The Truth Shall Set You Free on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 9:45 pm 

    Davy on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 5:50 pm :FYI I am off-line until the morning.

    Thank God for some peace and sanity now that DavyTroll is working the I-44 weekend truckstop restroom stalls.

  18. Davy on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 10:46 pm 

    Your just lealous juanpee cause nobody guzzles splooge like I do. You had your chance and you blew it.


  19. Davy on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 10:58 pm 

    Your so stupid juanpee. Your dick doesn’t mean so much to me any more. Pablo’s penis is bigger and blacker then yours will ever be, and Pablo paints my toe nails any color I like.

    So there.

  20. Davy on Sat, 17th Aug 2019 11:17 pm 

    I am off line now until Sunday night. All posts until then are juanpee.

  21. makati1 on Sun, 18th Aug 2019 2:23 am 

    As if anyone here believes your bullshit, Davy.

  22. Davy on Sun, 18th Aug 2019 8:36 am 

    Give me cock (ebony) or give me death!!!!

  23. Kenz300 on Mon, 19th Aug 2019 2:53 pm 

    How many fish can you put in a fish tank before they begin to eat each other.

    Endless population growth is not sustainable on a planet with finite resources.

    It only leads to more poverty, suffering and despair.

  24. Rick on Tue, 20th Aug 2019 8:46 am 

    Davy, you are a sore loser.

  25. Rick on Tue, 20th Aug 2019 9:15 am 

    We have enough food to feed everyone in the world. The problem is waste.

  26. Rick on Tue, 20th Aug 2019 11:55 am 

    Overpopulation is a global problem. Education is the best solution (The higher the education, the lower the fertility).

  27. Gaia on Wed, 21st Aug 2019 6:15 am 

    All food waste should be diverted away from landfills and used for composting.

  28. Gaia on Wed, 21st Aug 2019 7:24 am 

    Our foods and beverages are full of toxic chemicals.

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