One of the major limiting factors of population size is food. Although his predictions of impending doom have so far proven wrong, Paul Ehrlich is right that if human population outstrips food production, the result would be a disaster. The question becomes, how likely is that disaster to occur? Not likely according to John Bongaarts.
Bongaarts is the author of “Population Pressure and Food Supply,” published in the September 1996 issue of Population and Development Review. Bongaarts analyzes trends in world food production from 1962 to 1989 using Food and Agricultural Organization data.
After a lengthy analysis of the any facets of the change in food production over that period and reasonable expectations about future changes in food production, Bongaarts concludes,
Although any projection to the middle of the next century must be regarded as speculative, on the whole the above illustrative scenario for 2050 appears achievable. Recent short-term projections to 2010 or 2020 based on econometric models by the World Bank (Mitchell and Ingco 1995), FAO (Alexandratos 1995), and the International Food Policy Research Institute (Agcaoili and Rosegrant 1995) also foresee no major obstacles to continued expansion of the food supply. It is therefore likely that serious and persistent global food shortages can be avoided, provided governments vigorously pursue efforts to improve economic policies and facilitate the dissemination of new technology and investment in research and human resource (Bongaarts 499).
Sticking to food production for the moment, one of the refrains I hear constantly from people skeptical of claims of increasing food production is that current farming techniques are unsustainable because they rely on manmade pesticides and fertilizers. I happen to think that claim is spurious, but it is also largely irrelevant.
Almost every week a new major discovery is reported in efforts to create more effective farming technologies which often turn out to be far more “environmentally friendly” than current methods. In July, for example, it was announced that Colorado State entomologist Louis Bjostad has made significant progress in developing a natural way to rid corn of the Western corn rootworm, responsible for up to $1 billion in annual crop losses.
Bjostad discovered the rootworm eats corn because of carbon dioxide given off by corn roots. He and his researchers are working on pellets and granules of yeast, baking soda and other materials which could be placed in corn fields which would confuse the rootworms by giving off carbon dioxide. If it works, Bjostads discovery would not only be safer but far cheaper than using conventional pesticides.
Bjostad plans to do two more years of field tests to identify which compounds and mixtures are most effective in dealing with the rootworm.
The 20th century has seen numerous improvements in health and the result is a much larger population. But exactly how much larger is the population because of these changes in health? In an article in the September 1996 Population and Development Review, Kevin M. White and Samuel H. Preston underscore just how significant the change has been by looking at what the population of the United States would be if death rates in 1900 had remained stable.
White and Preston offer four scenarios of population size in 2000. The actual estimated population in the U.S. in 2000 is 276 million persons. If, on the other hand, death rates at all ages had been fixed at 1900 levels, the population in 2000 would only have been 139 million people.
Most of the difference is accounted for by reducing childhood death. When death rates for 0-14 are fixed at 1900 levels but death rates for other age groups vary at actual rates, the population jumps to 186 million.
When death rates for ages 15-49 are fixed at 1900 levels, the population jumps to 225 million, and when death rates for ages 50+ are fixed at 1900 levels the population jumps to 258 million.
Although decreasing infant mortality and early childhood death have been of overwhelming importance, the population would still be only half of what it is today had it not been in improvements in mortality rates for those aged 15 and over.
Summer, of course, is generally the time when gasoline prices shoot through the roof. Last year they briefly went so high that President Bill Clinton ordered the Justice Department to investigate oil companies for price fixing. On July 28, 1997 CNN reported that in the midst of the summer gasoline prices continue their now seven-month long decline (the average price of gasoline nationally was $1.24 per gallon on July 25).
For those who think this is an excessively high price, the American Petroleum Institute estimates that over 1/3 of the cost of a gallon of gas goes simply to pay various federal, state and local taxes.
Oh, and for those concerned by reports of what are often characterized as low levels of oil in world reserves, a report last year by the American Institute for Economic Research explains the reserve situation has nothing to do with total available oil supplies but instead is a profit maximizing strategy by oil companies. As the AIER puts it, “Supplies (inventories) of petroleum in general are low, as are U.S. inventories of gasoline, in particular. Oilmen around the world have been trying to avoid holding excessive amounts of what could prove to be high-cost oil when and if Iraq is again allowed to sell in the world markets.”
While people in the West worry about cancer and heart disease, worldwide malaria is still a nightmare killer. According to a story in the Jan. 20, 1997 <iUS News and World Report, in rural Africa Malaria claims 1 in 20 children under the age of 5.
Unfortunately theres been a recent spate of good news about malaria. Back in January the New England Journal of Medicine reported on a vaccine for malaria which had an 80 percent success rate in preliminary studies. Just a few days ago CNN reported that researchers at the University of Illinois might have found a safe, natural way of killing mosquitoes using an oil derived from soybeans which suffocates the mosquito larvae.
Both initiatives still require several years of further testing, but if either or both are successful, countless deaths from malaria could be avoided. And theres the problem.
What happens if fewer children in Africa die? Thats right, the population increases even more than it already is. Now, I think keeping children from dying from malaria would be a good thing even with the additional increase in population levels. Lets hope the anti-population activists have gotten over their attacks on the irresponsibility of decreasing infant mortality in the Third World and embrace this advance as well.
With the proliferation of the Internet, most of the data and other information regarding population are now conveniently found on the web. So now when someone emails me, as often happens, that my population numbers are a crock, I can point them to the US Census Bureaus on-line estimate of world population through 2050.
There are two interesting things to note about these figures. The first, of course, is that the mid-year population projection for 2050 is 9.3 billion people — far lower than some of the irresponsibly high numbers which are often tossed around as if they are inevitable.
Second, the actual world population total could be far lower. Consider, for example, that from 1986 to 1996, the average annual growth rate declined by .28 percent — close to a .03 percent decline per year. In fact since 1970 the world has experienced an average .255 percent decline each year. But for its projections, the Census Bureau assumes only a .02 percent drop each year.
Of course, on the other hand even small decreases in this rate could drive the population in 2050 far higher, but so far all of the available evidence is consistent with a continuing fall in worldwide fertility rates and thus population growth rates.