Sunday, October 30, 2011

How am I gonna feed all these people?

Last Monday, we’re told, the earth’s population passed the 7 billion mark. We were also told that population was being added at the rate of 4.4 per second, so by today, the number would be 2,661,120 more than that, or 7,002,661,120 and counting—that is, if we weren’t also dying at the rate of . . . X per second. (For an interesting read on the meaning of 7 billion people, see
               It was Thomas Robert Malthus (1776-1834) who pioneered world-wide demographic studies that predicted almost 200 years ago that population would rapidly outstrip the earth’s ability to feed everyone. The starvation he predicted didn’t appear as early as prognosticated, but when we hear about African famine, we’re reminded that parts of the earth are periodically in just such a dilemma.
               On the other hand, we’re assured that there is food enough for all; that it’s merely a problem of difficulty in transporting it from place to place to meet emerging need. But if you or I were faced with an Ethiopia-like famine, this information would bring little consolation.
               An obvious conclusion is that the world is not overpopulated, but that parts of it certainly are. Where I live, in a small town in Saskatchewan in 2011, rising population is still linked to progress, the store shelves are always brimming with cheap food and the nagging problem is not starvation, but obesity.
               Rosthern, Saskatchewan is not overpopulated. Parts of Africa may be.
               Many animal species are territorial; they stake out areas large enough to sustain themselves and defend those areas pugnaciously. Inuit would traditionally limit their households to sustainable numbers by birth control or, if necessary, infanticide. Apparently the instinct to balance population to local environment exists but has been largely extinguished in the course of human development. The ability to reach and sustain such a balance is as important a human skill as is agricultural knowhow. The relevant point—surely—is to grow enough food, not to grow as much food as is possible. Enough may in future mean: as much as is necessary to feed an area’s population without importation. As fossil fuel energy dwindles over time, its price will inevitably rise and the growing and transportation costs of food will rise proportionally. Poor areas of the world may increasingly be out of luck when droughts, for instance, curtail local supplies.
               Population control is one of a number of measures that is needed. Birth control devices are far lighter, easier and cheaper to transport than grain, meat, fruits and vegetables.
               The other measure will, of course, be the wresting of food production and marketing from corporate hands. But that’s a whole other story.


  1. What are your thoughts on what might be standing in the way of birth control?

  2. Thanks for the question, Bruce. the issue is complex, but we know that when countries have reached a developed stage--like Canada--birth rates fall off. Certainly religious scruples concerning birth control must have an effect. Lack of education regarding both the biology of reproduction and the effects of high birth rates probably influences family size. I don't know if population questions can be tackled on any but a piecemeal basis with current institutions given the huge pockets of poverty around the world; enforced "one-child" regulations or the eugenics of our past are places to which we probably don't want to go at all. In the end, I think that building and equipping schools is the best bet for ensuring that overpopulated parts of the world can act to alleviate their food issues. Empowering women to exercise reproductive choice and ensuring that birth control "materials" and counseling are available has been shown to be effective.