More food for thought on population

It was great to see National Catholic Reporter blogger Jamie Manson‘s thoughtful response to Sam Eaton’s PBS NewsHour story about food and family planning in the Philippines. It’s worth taking a look at the comments, too, full of passion and information.

Like the Manson essay, many of the comments on Sam’s radio piece on the Marketplace website focus on the role of the Catholic church in blocking access to free or low-cost contraceptives. Which makes sense, since the Church is clearly the main impediment to publicly funded family planning services in the Philippines. But Church opposition is not the only thing keeping poor people in the Philippines from limiting the size of their families, nor is it the main cause for stubbornly high population growth in poor countries worldwide.

Poverty, insecurity, lack of education (especially for girls), gender inequality, lack of social safety nets, inadequate public health systems, and a host of other factors conspire to keep parents from stopping at the “replacement level” of two kids (actually 2.1 or 2.3, depending on the place). At the same time, improvements in sanitation, medicine, and nutrition have allowed more children to survive to child-bearing age. There’s a lag time as the birth rate adjusts to the death rate, and that imbalance leads to some pretty serious growth. If you want to see how radically different the last 50 years have been from the rest of human history, take a look at the little graph on any of the population entries on the “Food for 9 Billion” project’s World Food Timeline.

It’s interesting to look at the role of food in all this. We often hear how the dramatic increase in food production since the 1960s has allowed the world to stay a step ahead of mass starvation. The late Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Prize-winning wheat breeder and father of the Green Revolution, is widely credited with saving more lives than anyone in human history. But some people argue that the surge in agricultural output has actually contributed to the surge in population, in line with the basic ecological principle that the population of any species will rise to meet the food supply. The argument only goes so far, as the most food-secure countries tend to be the ones with the lowest birth rates. But certainly starvation and malnutrition take fewer lives today than they did 50 years ago, and that translates into many more mouths to feed.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that world population growth has been slowing impressively in the last decade or two, and not just because people in wealthy countries have stopped reproducing. According to the UN and other bodies, the global population should level off by about 2100. Unfortunately, this has led many of us to think that “the population problem” will take care of itself. But the projections are very inexact, and the markedly different birth rates in different countries show that public policy can be every bit as important as parents’ “natural” inclination to have fewer children as their living standards improve.

As Sam Eaton reported, one more child per family today can mean billions more people 100 years from now. As it is, the global population is growing by about 200,000 per day. Anything that can be done to reduce that number is likely to bring major benefits to children, families, nations, and the planet. And given the way the math works, the sooner we act, the better.