March 29, 2009
1 Billion Humans Chronically Hungry

Progress isn't inevitable.

The number of chronically hungry people has surpassed the 1bn mark for the first time as the economic crisis compounds the impact of high food prices, the United Nations' top agriculture official has warned.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Jacques Diouf, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, warned that the increasing numbers of undernourished people could trigger political instability in developing countries.

As the prices of commodities skyrocketed the percentage that are chronically hungry rose. Then the recession hit and agricultural prices plummeted due to declining buying power. So first the food became too expensive and then the food prices only dropped because people are making less money with which to buy food.

The percentage who are hungry dropped and then half of the percentage decline has since been lost.

The percentage fell from 20 per cent in 1990-92 to a low of just below 16 per cent in 2003-05. But with 1bn people chronically hungry now, the percentage has risen to almost 18 per cent.

When I write posts about resource depletion and overpopulation some cornucopians write comments asserting that things have never been better and keep getting better. But they are missing an important part of the picture: The human population has increased so fast in poor countries that the absolute amount of suffering and hunger has actually increased over the last century. Take Kenya as an example. Kenya has a population of about 38 million. Over 100 years ago Kenya's population was about 1.4 million. They didn't have all that many people to go to bed hungry or starve to death. Food supply limitations prevented population growth. Then along came the agricultural revolution and population growth exploded. Kenya's population has grown by a factor of 6 since 1950 and by a factor of 27 in a little over a century. Kenya's population is projected to hit 50 million by 2030 unless hunger intervenes. Another site projects a population of 51 million by 2025 and 65 million by 2050.

Kenya of course contains endangered species. But by 2025, 2030, and 2050 Kenya will have fewer endangered species. Better go see them now if you intend to see them. The omnivorous homo sapiens will eat them all.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 March 29 01:54 PM  Trends Demographic


Comments
simone said at March 29, 2009 2:49 PM:

Are humans earthlings or not? Evolution will spell out our story. You must either accept we are just one more species or something different. If just another species, then evolution will play its course. If just a species, then your concern is purely self interest. Please stop pretending you care a lick about others.

Randall Parker said at March 29, 2009 2:57 PM:

Simone,

I care about me first and foremost. I have successively lower levels of caring about an assortment of individuals and groups.

I appeal to self interest. I tell people how their self interest is at stake mainly to goad them into changing their minds and changing what they support and oppose as polcies. I'm not appealing to their self interest because I care about them anywhere near as much as I'm appealing to their self interest because I think their self interest overlaps with mine.

So to be clear: I'm not pretending.

Just another species: We are smarter than the other species. But we are still products of evolution.

Something different: The more that people act like we are something special who will automatically conquer all our problems because we are so great the more that we doom ourselves to failure. Success isn't automatic. Success isn't assured. Lots of bad things are happening.

Jorge Landivar said at March 29, 2009 9:16 PM:

The reason the food prices skyrocketed is in large part because of government subsidies for biofuels.
When we subsidize biofuels, people starve... thats the way it works.

Larry said at March 30, 2009 10:40 PM:

The number of chronically hungry people has surpassed the 1bn mark for the first time as the economic crisis compounds the impact of high food prices, the United Nations' top agriculture official has warned.

OK, but the relevant number is 18%, which is less than the 90's 20%, and which certainly doesn't represent an historic high. Until the crisis, hunger was declining at an historically unprecedented rate, despite the (rapidly declining) growth of 3rd world populations. The recent uptick has nothing to do with population growth, and everything to do with stupid government policies that divert food into energy production.

The human population has increased so fast in poor countries that the absolute amount of suffering and hunger has actually increased over the last century. Take Kenya as an example.

Africa and the Islamic world are the last remaining areas of rapid population growth. As economic development continues (it will, albeit probably not this year) the demographic transition will take hold there as it has in every other culture on earth. Assuming our food-producing ability doesn't crash from environmental problems or other stupid policies, the next few decades will see the end of widespread hunber.

Mats-Erik said at April 1, 2009 4:35 PM:

Larry,

"Africa and the Islamic world are the last remaining areas of rapid population growth. As economic development continues (it will, albeit probably not this year) the demographic transition will take hold there as it has in every other culture on earth."

Africa, south of Sahara, has had essentially no economic development since 1950, except in a few cases: Botswana, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya (?), Nigeria, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwes development was however nullified in a matter of years, despite being more developed than most of the abovementioned countries (and it will not recover in a few years, believe me). Population growth in e. g. Niger has in fact been accelerating recently. I see nothing to stop Africa to add another billion or two by 2050 followed by a few more billions until 2100.
Even in the US there are pockets of high population growth (all of them religious groups showing no tendency whatsoever to "adapt" to mainstream god ol' America) and they will not stop. Ergo, hunger will come back and humans will once again experience what they always have, death by scarce resources, in similarity to ALL other species.
Only high-tech can stop this and then only in a totalitarian state or a far-fetched expansion into space. We live in a unique time when there are enough resources to feed everyone, which blinds people to the obvious. There are NO exceptions to the rule that individuals in every species live under tremendous pressure and to think that humans will soon be immune to this pressure is in my view completely unfounded.
It will likely take a century or so before the problems become acute so enjoy life fully right now.

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