Population Growth, Food Security and Equity

Dr. Kamla Chowdhry
Former Chairman
National Wastelands Development Board

We are all becoming concerned with the health of the planet. The survival of nations – rich and poor – ozone hole, the warming of Earth and the rising of the oceans, the pollution and its effect on health and food security, trade, bio-diversity and IPR. The poor nations are more concerned about Earth, soil, deforestation, desertification and population problems. All these are inter-related and solutions to one cannot be seen as emanating from North or South – global solutions are necessary for our common future. There is a general collapse of the ecological base all over, but more so in the Northern industrialised countries with higher economic growth. The higher economic growth of the North is related to questions of equity and access to natural resources. Related also, are questions of disintegration of social systems and institutions, resulting in crime, violence and terrorism.

We have a problem. The very survival of the planet we live on is at stake. Several factors, inter-linked, seem to be leading to this profound crisis. There is the problem of population growth, of exploding numbers, especially in the poor developing countries; of increasing degradation of natural resources, of soil erosion, depleting water resources, contamination of acquifers, deforestation, desertification, and in general, a collapse of the ecological base. Linked to the problems of population growth and degradation of natural resources are questions of food security, economic growth, equity between nations and within nations, of disintegrating social systems and institutions, leading to crime, violence and terrorism; of new definitions of sovereignity and of interdependence of nations. All these are not isolated problems. Each, to some extent, is both a cause and a consequence of the others.

Population Growth and Food Security

Robert McNamara in his Rafael Salas Memorial lecture has pointed out that “for thousands of years the world population grew at a snail’s pace. It took over a million years to reach 1 billion in 1800. But then the pace quickened. The second billion was added in 130 years, the third in 30, the fourth in 15 and the fifth billion in 12 years.” He adds, “That in the decade of the 90’s, 100 million people per year will be added, and that 90% of this will take place in the developing countries.”1 What are the implications of population growth in such numbers for food security, for equitable sharing of resources, of North-South partnerships and of “our common future”?

In 1950 the world population was 2.5 billion. In 1990 it had increased to 5.3 billion, a doubling of numbers in just 40 years. Population projections for the year 2000 is 6 billion, for 2025, 7.8 billion, and for 2050, 8.9 billion.

At what level will the world population stabilise and when? In 1982 the U.N. estimated that it would stabilise at 10.2 billion in 2085. But this is no longer so. The new projections of the World Bank are that the world population would stabilise at approximately 12.4 billion around the year 2085. Dr. Nafis Sadik of UNFPA however states that, “The world could be headed towards an eventual total of 14 billion. Of this, 12.5 billion, that is 90%, would be in the developing countries.” Such numbers in the developing countries would mean that the majority of the world citizens would become non-European, non-Caucasian. Such a shift in the ethnic make-up of world population would have a profound impact on the geopolitics of the world.

The World Watch Institute points out that a world population of 12 billion plus is unlikely to materialise, for the simple reason that natural systems in many countries are already collapsing under existing population and consumption pressures. They believe that the world population can go no higher than 8 billion, if the world is to avoid massive deaths from starvation and disease.

Lester Brown warns that if the world remains on the 12 billion plus trajectory for much longer, population growth will be checked in more and more countries by famine and disease. The uncontrolled increase of urbanisation in the developing countries has led to large scale slums, with problems of clean water, pollution and sanitation, and epidemics such as malaria, cholera, and plaque, eliminating and checking population in the only way nature knows how under those conditions.

Food security, however, is not only a question of population numbers. For even in the 80’s when world population was less than 5 billion, there were already large scale deaths from starvation and disease. In spite of a surplus of global food output, the number of the absolute poor, even today, is more than a billion, and the World Bank estimates that this number is likely to increase further by nearly another 100 million in this decade.

For the decade of the 90’s, the FAO estimates that 64 developing countries out of 117, would be unable to feed their populations adequately, and that 38 of these developing countries would be able to support less than half of their projected populations. According to the World Food Council,2 the number of hungry people had increased 5 times faster in the 80’s than in the previous decade. Indications are that the decade of the 90’s will be even more grim. For instance, the annual growth of cereal production in developing countries is predicted to fall from the 3.8% produced in 1970-1985, to 2.6% in 1984-2000 (FAO). This will mean more food imports, more international debt, more destruction of forests and other natural resources and, of course, more poverty.

The problem, therefore, of food security in developing countries is not only linked to population growth figures but, to a larger extent, to issues of equity, of international economic order, of consumption patterns and life styles in the west. Achieving food security for all will mean increasing agricultural productivity, but above all, it will mean dealing with issues of equity regarding distribution of energy, land, water and other resources, and the resolving of conflicts and dilemmas between North and South.

Our Common Future? Some North-South Dilemmas

In terms of grain equivalent, the 4 billion population in the developing world consumes about 250 kilograms per capita per year. The European Community consumes 450 kilograms and the USA 840 kilograms per capita per year, which is almost four times the amount in a developing country. A considerable part of the grain in the USA, about 40%, is used as animal feed. It is clear that the problem of food security is not because of the earth’s capacity to feed world population (not with the present numbers) but of incomes, prices, subsidies and other mechanisms of access and control regarding trade; of capitalist’s intensive strategies of development which ignored the poor; of frequent ecological and human disasters subsequent to many large projects, often causing unprecedented financial waste and displacement of people. Plentitude co-exists with near starvation diets in different parts of the world.

The Xochicall Foundation in Mexico estimated that in order to put 2200 k/cal of food on the table, it requires 19,000 k/cal to be used. To put it another way, the amount of energy consumed in transporting foodstuffs in Mexico is almost equal to the total energy required by the primary sector for food production. As Manfred Max-Neef of the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation points out, “the fact that such situations are considered to be positive is, undoubtedly, a conceptual aberration.” Such conceptual aberrations raise the question of consumption patterns and life styles.

If developing nations were to provide their present populations with the level of consumption now prevailing in the industrialised countries, energy supply would have to increase by a factor of 5. The Gulf crisis may be an example of other conflicts to come, of North-South confrontations related to the use and sharing of resources, including energy and food; sharing of responsibilities regarding global pollution, global warming, bio-diversity and genetic erosion and intellectual property rights, etc. Most of the world’s bio-diversity centres are in the developing countries. Severe genetic erosion has taken place as a result of the commercialisation of agriculture and forestry. In an unequal world, how does one pay for indigenous knowledge and technology due to local communities, and how does one protect their intellectual property rights?

The average per capita consumption of materials and energy is almost 40 times greater in the North than in the less developed countries. In the extreme, the disparity is as much as 1:100.3 This is not only a reflection of lack of equitable sharing of resources, but also of an indication of the thoughtless exploitation of natural resources. It is doubtful that global sustainable development can be achieved with the growth and consumption rates in the industrialised countries. If the concept of global sustainability is to be achieved and the idea of `our common future’ taken seriously, then one must question the present levels of material consumption of non-renewable resources by the rich industrialised countries.

The question of consumption and of life styles in the industrialised countries is an important question on the agenda of those concerned with population growth and food security, and with environmental degradation. The Council of the Club of Rome, in its report, ‘The Global Revolution’ states, “We believe that consumption in its present form cannot persist, not only because of the constraints but also because of the deeper reasons of human values. The shallow satisfaction of consumption, keeping up with the Joneses, is incompatible with a decent human life, which needs a deep sense of self.”3 The indispensable and painful conclusion is that wealth will have to be shared. This means lifestyles and patterns of consumption will have to be modified in the rich countries and also in the rich sectors of poor countries.

At the root of the problem is the greed of man. Gandhi said that “we have enough for our needs but not for our greed”. Shankaracharya, a Hindu philosopher of the 8th century, marvelled: “Time flies, our lives run out, and yet we are unable to overcome our insatiable urge for acquiring more and more worldly possessions.”

If the industrialised countries continue with their consumption patterns and lifestyles, then there is no escape from an unequal and divided world, the coexistence of glut and famine, and the inescapable conflicts between North and South.

The South regards the decade of the 80’s as a lost decade. President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado of Mexico voicing the concerns of the Third World leaders struggling with their economies and international debt said, “The 1980’s not only represent lost time in terms of growth but backward steps have unhappily been taken. The South has been virtually kept out of economic decisions that most concern it. Our raw materials are bought at prices that are less and less renumerative, while products with higher value added find their access blocked by artificial obstacles with political overtones.4

The Prime Minister of Malaysia also voiced the same sort of concern. He said, “Fifteen years later, after the call for a new international economic order, we continue to find ourselves enmeshed in external debts, frustrated by extensive and growing protectionism, bedevilled by fluctuations of commodity prices in favour of the developed countries of the North.”

The Third World countries are unfavourably placed in the world economic systems and individually they are powerless to influence these processes and institutions. Julius Nyere, the Chairman of the South Commission, emphasised that, only when the South learned to speak with a united voice vis-a-vis the North, chances of economic growth will exist for them. If problems of population growth, poverty, food security, environment, economic growth of developing countries are to be seriously tackled, it is imperative that the international economic order assists rather than hinders their efforts.

It is not surprising that after a decade of declining economical and environmental condition, the countries of the South have not been able to cope with their population growth, problems of poverty, and resource degradation, setting in motion a downward spiral of even greater poverty, leading to more children and more environmental degradation. After a decade of declining economic status, the countries of the South are at a dangerous crossroad.

The debt situation in many of the developing countries has become a matter of serious concern and requires urgent action. Since 1984, the developing countries have been transferring money to the developed countries, a net negative transfer of repayments in excess of new lending. The amount of this transfer was over US$ 50 billion in 1988. By 1990, Third World debt had reached US$ 1.2 trillion. The cost of servicing this debt in 1990 was US$ 140 billion, a burden that has contributed to a reversal of the traditional capital flow from rich countries to poor ones. Developing countries are not only unable to invest in their future but are forced to spend inordinate sums on debts accumulated as a result of copying western style capital intensive projects, with little benefit accruing to the poor. The debt situation has also led many developing countries to sell their forests and opt for intensive cash crops, thus causing soil degradation and jeopardising their long-term future.

Further, the developing countries find that access to the markets of the North have become more restrictive because of protectionism through GATT and other trade restrictions. As the South Commission report states, “The leading countries of the North use their power in pursuit of their own objectives. The fate of the South is increasingly dictated by the multilateral institutions which are controlled by a few of these governments. Domination has been reinforced where partnership for development was required.” If economic development of poor countries is to progress, the international economic order must become more fair and equitable. The reality of UNCTAD and GATT is that it is heavily tilted in favour of the already rich countries.

The economic development of the USA in the nineteenth century was largely financed by European investments. Likewise the rebuilding of post-war Europe was because of the large scale capital infusion due to the Marshall Plan. In general, however, the attitude to investing in the developing countries of the South is different. The scale of total lending has been far short of that needed to deal adequately with the many problems of economic growth. Furthermore, the aid provided by several countries is often linked to the purchase of goods and services, essentially a form of export promotion. In any case, the aid level of many donor countries has been declining. With the investment requirements of Eastern European countries and of the ex-USSR countries, there is likely to be a major shift of financial aid from Third World countries to Eastern Europe.

Considering that many of the developing countries gained independence from colonial rule only 30 to 40 years ago, and that they have had to restructure their economic policies and institutions to domestic needs and national interests, their achievements have not been bad. Mehbub Ul Haq, argues that, ” Developing countries have achieved in the last 30 years the kind of real progress that it took industrial countries nearly a century to accomplish. While the income gap between North and South is still very large – with the average income in the South being 6% of that in the North – the human gaps have been closing fast. Average life expectancy has increased by 16 years, adult literacy by 40%, nutritional levels by over 20% per capita, and child mortality rates have been halved during this period.”3 Even with limited aid and international cooperation, the countries of the South have made significant improvements in the human development index.

The developed countries have no population problem. Economic growth acts to slow the birth rate. If population growth in the developing countries is to be seriously tackled, it is imperative that economic growth takes priority and, that investments and aid are of the order that makes development decisive. Partial development, we have learned, has a destabilising effect.


In a final sense, sustainable economic growth and the removal of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, are not merely functions of economic planning nor of technological achievements, but stem from a moral force which does not accept hunger, the widening disparities between the rich and poor or the over-exploitation of natural resources. Sustainable global development requires more equitable sharing of resources, of voluntarily giving up consumptive life styles so that everyone can live with decency within the planet’s ecological resources.

If the world is to survive it must move towards a more equitable sharing of resources. The great division between rich and poor countries must diminish, as well as the division between the rich and poor of a given country. There is also the great division between men and women, which makes economic growth slower in every respect.

Concern for equity, whether it is in terms of sharing land, water or other natural resources, or concern for equity in terms of dealing with people of different races, colours, creeds or equity in terms of gender, are all different facets of the same malady. The prospects of equity in terms of sharing resources or in terms of dealing with other members of our species, black brown or yellow, are not too optimistic. And yet, unless man changes radically, `our common future’ will remain merely a slogan.

Earlier, it was mentioned that by 2025, the world population would be around 8 billion and that 90% of it would be in the developing countries. Certainly in China, India and Africa the increase in population would be beyond the bearing capacity of land. Millions are likely to emigrate, largely illegally, to other countries, raising prickly questions of territorial boundaries and immigration policies. In the next decade or so, we are likely to see mass migrations on an unprecedented scale. Already several million Mexicans have slipped into the USA and, Asians and Africans to Europe, Canada and the USA. Bangladeshis in large numbers have been infiltrating India. The Tripura tribals feared that not only would these infiltrators occupy large areas of already scarce land but that they were becoming a minority in their own land.5

To give some idea of the differences in the density of population: Australia has six persons per sq.mile, Canada has seven and the USA has 70; whereas China has 302, India has 672, Bangladesh has 2064, Pakistan has 369, Indonesia has 258 and Thailand has 281 persons per sq.mile.6

In the period when Europe was industrialising, it is estimated that between 1846 and 1930 over 50 million Europeans emigrated to other continents with large, open, uninhabited spaces which were forcibly taken over from the local inhabitants, the so-called Aborigines, American Indians and so forth.

The pressure from poor and populated countries to move into `empty’ spaces of other continents would be painfully high. If the concept of national sovereignty is likely to change because of global warming, acid rain, oil spills, human rights’ issues, then it is also likely that national sovereignty will be questioned concerning immigration laws, of different quotas for different countries, etc. Many immigrants (Africans, Asians, Middle Easterners, etc.) in Germany, the USA and the UK have been attacked by `hoodlums’. With the increase of illegal immigrants on the rise, attacks and violence has been increasing. In Germany, the last few months have seen a spate of attacks on immigrants by far-right youths as well as 1930 style marches by neo-Nazi groups. The Bonn Interior Ministry registered 950 attacks against foreigners in October, 534 in November, and 187 in December.5 Yet as the report of the Club of Rome asks: “Can we envisage a future world with a ghetto of rich nations, armed with sophisticated weapons to protect themselves against the hordes of hungry, uneducated, unemployed and very angry people outside?”3 Such a scenario, they believe, is unlikely, for they hope “unforeseen world events will surely intervene.” Besides the hope of `unforeseen events’, it seems that the concept of national sovereignty will have to be clarified and made more humane and just in this interdependent world.

The problem of colour and race (and, of course, gender) is deeply imbedded in the ethos of many cultures. Take, for instance, the African, Asian, Latino and Native American communities in the USA. According to a 1987 study,7 these communities bear a disproportionate burden of the nation’s environment and development problems. The study points out that race is the leading factor in the location of hazardous waste facilities; 40% of the nation’s estimated commercial landfills are located in Black and Hispanic communities. The study further points out that the pattern of targetting communities of colour does not stop here. It extends to the designation of hazardous waste transportation routes in urban areas, and to the location of factories processing solid waste, and of nuclear testing sites. In October ’91, the `coloured’ people organised the first National People of Colour Environmental Leadership Summit Meeting in Washington, where 600 of their representatives attended. They pointed out that industrialisation and development in the USA has left a trail of environmental horrors that has had catastrophic consequences for them.7

In many instances of aid too, the lack of concern and consideration for Third World people has been noted. John Madely, the Editor of the ‘International Agriculture Development’ pointed out in an article, ‘Britain and the Third World’, “Britain has continued to use the Third World as a dump for pesticides, with British firms setting formulations that contain active ingredients (such as disulfoton and terbufos) which are either banned or severely restricted on health or environmental grounds in Britain and other countries.” The dumping of toxic waste in the Third World countries is another problem to be reckoned with, in the pursuit of equity and human rights.

In the final analysis, the South’s plea for justice, equity and democracy in the global society cannot be disassociated from its pursuit of these goals within its own societies. As Julius Nyere, Chairman of the South Commission has pointed out, “Commitment to democratic values, respect for fundamental rights, particularly the right to dissent, fair treatment for minorities and, concern for the poor and underprivileged, all these increase the South’s chances of securing a new world order.”


  1. McNamara Robert S., A Global Population Policy to Advance Human Development in the 21st Century, United Nations, New York December 1991
  2. Ending Hunger, the Cyprus Initiative, World Food Council, 1990
  3. The First Global Revolution, A Report by the Council of the Club of Rome, Pantheon Books, New York, 1991
  4. The Challenge to the South: The Report of the South Commission, Oxford University Press, 1990
  5. March, David, Times of India, 24th January, 1992
  6. World Population Data Sheet: Population Reference Bureau, Inc. Washington, 1990
  7. United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, A Study, reported in Panos, 28th January, 1992


Dr. Kamla Chowdhry is a leading policy-maker for the Government of India. In her long managerial and academic career, she has served as Vice-Chairman and Director of the Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development, Advisor on Public Planning and Management at the Ford Foundation, Visiting Professor at the Harvard Business School, Director of the Research Centre for Group Dynamics ATIRA and Head of the Human Relations Division of Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association. She has played a key role in establishing and building national and international institutions dealing with development, poverty management, environment and ecology, rural development, women’s issues, irrigation and agroforestry. Her many memberships include the Advisory Board on Energy – Government of India, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, the National Council for Applied Economic Research, the Indian Institute of Technology and the World Commission on Environment and Development, Geneva. She also serves as member of the Technical Advisory Committee of the Consultative Group of International Agriculture Research, member of the Board of the National Foundation of India and the Aga Khan Rural Development Support Services, and Chairperson of several institutions, including the Forum for Agricultural Research, the Centre for Science and Environment, and the All India Council of Management Studies.