Millennium Challenge No. 3. How can population growth and resources be brought into balance?

Reference: The Millennium Project

There were 1 billion humans in 1804; 2 billion in 1927; 6 billion in 1999; and 7 billion today. The UN’s forecasts for 2050 range from 8.1 billion to 10.6 billion, with 9.3 billion as the mid-projection. Nearly all the population increases will be in urban areas in developing countries, where the slum population expanded from 767 million in 2000 to 828 million in 2010 and is expected to reach 889 million by 2020. Without sufficient nutrition, shelter, water, and sanitation produced by more intelligent human-nature symbioses, increased migrations, conflicts, and disease seem inevitable.

Information and communications technology (ICT) continues to improve the match between needs and resources worldwide in real time, and nanotech will help reduce material use per unit of output while increasing quality. However, food prices may continue to rise due to increasing affluence (especially in India and China), soil erosion and the loss of cropland, increasing fertilizer costs (high oil prices), market speculation, aquifer depletion, falling water tables and water pollution, diversion of crops to biofuels, increasing meat consumption, falling food reserves, diversion of water from rural to urban, and a variety of climate change impacts. The World Bank estimates that rising food prices pushed an additional 44 million people into poverty between June 2010 and January 2011.

Population dynamics are changing from high mortality and high fertility to low mortality and low fertility. If fertility rates continue to fall, world population could actually shrink to 6.2 billion by 2100, creating an elderly world difficult to support; if not, however, the UN projects 15.8 billion by 2100. Today life expectancy at birth is 68 years, which is projected to grow to 81 by 2100; with advances in longevity research, this projection will increase. About 20% of the world will be over 60 by 2050, and 20% of the older population will be aged 80 or more. Some 20% of Europeans are 60 or older, compared with 10% in Asia and Latin America and 5% in Africa. Over 20 countries have falling populations, which could increase to 44 countries by 2050, with the vast majority of them in Europe. Countering this “retirement problem” is the potential for future scientific and medical breakthroughs that could give people longer and more productive lives than most would believe possible today. People will work longer and create many forms of tele-work, part-time work, and job rotation to reduce the economic burden on younger generations and to keep up living standards.

Meanwhile, 925 million people were undernourished in 2010 (reduced from over 1 billion in 2009), while 30–40% of food production from farm to mouth is lost in many countries. The World Food Project (WFP) provides food assistance to more than 90 million people in 73 countries, yet in some of these countries, agricultural lands (mostly in sub-Saharan Africa) are being sold or leased to foreign investors to feed their own countries. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that the private sector’s investment in farmland and agricultural infrastructure is as much as $25 billion and could double or triple over the next three to five years. Responsible Agricultural Investment, backed by the World Bank and UN agencies, aims to promote investment that respects local rights and livelihoods, but it is heavily criticized by NGOs as a move to legitimize land grabbing.

To keep up with population and economic growth, food production should increase by 70% by 2050. Meat consumption is predicted to increase from 37kg/ person/year in 2000 to over 52kg/person/year by 2050; if so, then 50% of cereal production would go to animal feed.

Monocultures undermine biodiversity, which is critical for agricultural viability. Conventional farming relying on expensive inputs is not resilient to climatic change. Agricultural productivity could decline 9–21% in developing countries by 2050 as a result of global warming. Massive wheat damage by the Ug99 fungus in 2009 was less in 2010; its genome is now sequenced, leading to countermeasures, but it remains a threat according to FAO. Small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years by using ecological methods. Agroecological farming projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects. Aquaculture produces about half of human-consumed fish.

New agricultural approaches are needed, such as producing pure meat without growing animals, better rain-fed agriculture and irrigation management, genetic engineering for higher-yielding and drought-tolerant crops, precision agriculture and aquaculture, and saltwater agriculture on coastlines to produce food for human and animals, biofuels, and pulp for the paper industry as well as to absorb CO2, reduce the drain on freshwater agriculture and land, and increase employment. An animal rights group has offered $1 million to the first producers of commercially viable in-vitro chicken by mid-2012. Challenge 3 will be addressed seriously when the annual growth in world population drops to fewer than 30 million, the number of hungry people decreases by half, the infant mortality rate decreases by two-thirds between 2000 and 2015, and new approaches to aging become economically viable.

Regional Considerations

Africa: The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 20 million hectares of farmland have been acquired by foreign interests in Africa during the last three years, many with 50-year leases or more. About 40% of children under five are chronically malnourished. Very rapid growth of the young population and low prospects for employment in most nations in sub-Saharan Africa and some nations in the Muslim world could lead to prolonged instability until at least the 2030s. Africa’s population doubled in the past 27 years to reach 1 billion and could reach 3.6 billion by 2100. Niger’s population growth exceeds economic growth; if its birth rate is halved by 2050, the population will grow from 14 million today to 53 million by 2050, while if the birth rate continues at current levels the population will grow to 80 million. Much of the urban management class is being seriously reduced by AIDS, which is also lowering life expectancy. Only 28% of married women of childbearing age are using contraceptives, compared with the global average of 62%. Africa’s ecological footprint could exceed its biocapacity within the next 20 years. Conflicts continue to prevent development investments, ruin fertile farmland, create refugees, compound food emergencies, and prevent better management of natural resources.

Asia and Oceania: Asia’s urban population may grow to 3.1 billion by 2050. China has 88 cities with populations over 1 million. It plans to merge nine cities in the South to create a “mega-city” the size of Switzerland. China has to feed 22% of the world’s population with less than 7% of the world’s arable land. There were six Chinese children for every one elder in 1975; by 2035 there will be two elders for every one child. China is growing old before it has grown rich. The fertility rate in China has fallen from 5.8 children in 1970 to 1.5 today. By 2050, those 65 years or older will be 38% of Japan’s population and 35% of South Korea’s. Approximately a third of the population in the Middle East is below 15; another third is 15–29; youth unemployment there is over 25%. New concepts of employment may be needed to prevent political instability.

Europe: After 2012, the European working-age population will start to shrink, while the number of individuals aged 60 and over will continue to increase by about 2 million per year. Europe’s low fertility rate and its aging and shrinking population will force changes in pension and social security systems, incentives for more children, and increases in immigrant labor, affecting international relations, culture, and the social fabric. The population at-risk-of-poverty in the 27 member states of the European Union (EU27) has fluctuated around 16.5% since 2005. Tensions among the EU member states over the influx of thousands of illegal immigrants in the wake of “the Arab Spring” intensify as Mediterranean countries, led by Italy, ask for greater burden sharing and may lead to changes in the Schengen treaty, the 1985 agreement that made the EU into a common travel area. Rural populations are expected to shrink, freeing additional land for agriculture.

Latin America: About 85% of the region will be urban by 2030, requiring massive urban and agricultural infrastructural investments. Over 53 million people are malnourished. Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua have approved food security laws to ensure local agricultural products are primarily used to feed their own populations and not for export; nine more countries are planning the same. Latin America’s elderly population is likely to triple from 6.3% in 2005 to 18.5% in 2050 — to 188 million. By 2050, half of Mexico’s population will be older than 43, an 18-year increase in median age. As fertility rates fall in Brazil and longevity increases by 50% over the next 20 years, the ability to meet financial requirements for the elderly will diminish; hence, the concept of retirement will have to change and social inclusion will have to improve to avoid future intergenerational conflicts.

North America: The number of those 65 or older in the U.S. is expected to grow from about 40 million in 2009 to 72 million in 2030. About 15% of American girls now begin puberty by age 7, potentially increasing girls’ odds of depression and behavioral problems. Less than 2% of the U.S. population provides the largest share of world food exports, while 37 million people in the U.S. receive food from Feed America. Two-thirds of people in the U.S. are overweight or obese. Reducing “throw-away” consumption could change the population-resource balance. Biotech and nanotech are just beginning to have an impact on medicine; hence dramatic breakthroughs in longevity seem inevitable in 25–50 years. Vancouver, Toronto, and Calgary are among the five most livable cities of the world. Global warming should increase Canadian grain exports.

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