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Hunger and Population Growth: Correcting a Common Misunderstanding

World hunger has no single, easily discernible source, least of all overpopulation
Children playing in maize fields in rural Malawi. Photo: Susana Vera
Children playing in maize fields in rural Malawi. Photo: Susana Vera

As the media report that the world’s population is expected to top 7 billion by the end of October, the subject of global hunger is bound to arise, as is a commonly held assumption about global hunger: “There’s so much hunger because the world is overpopulated.”

Like so many hypotheses, the perceived relationship between hunger and population rests on a seemingly logical premise: the world can produce only so much food, so if people are going hungry it must mean too many people exist.

But this isn’t true. In fact, evidence contradicting this line of thinking is widely available, but all the evidence in the world won’t make any difference unless others like you know it—and use it as well.

To begin debunking the overpopulation myth, it’s worth exploring the relationship between world population and childhood malnutrition. (Our data is from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators.)

Between 2000 and 2009 (the last year of the data), the world’s population went from 6.085 billion to 6.775 billion. In other words, it increased by about 11.3 percent. The growth was not uniform; the highest rates tended to occur in so-called “developing countries” where per capita income is low. These are largely the same countries where hunger and malnutrition are at their worst.

Given all this, those studying the data might expect childhood malnutrition increased at least as rapidly as world population over the same period. Actually, the opposite took place.

According to the same World Bank data, the rate of malnutrition among children under five years of age actually decreased over the same period by more than three percent (24.61 percent in 2000 to 21.27 percent in 2009). So the world population has grown while the proportion of kids who are malnourished has declined. If overpopulation really has placed a hard limit on our ability to fight hunger, this relationship would not exist.

The progress we’ve made over the last few years gives lie to the assertion that nothing can be done about hunger until the population is stable. For just one example of that progress, check out this article by our CEO, who recently visited our project in Garbatulla, Kenya that helps struggling local pastoralists—people who raise animals for a living—transition to a more sustainable and reliable farming lifestyle.

Of course, none of this is to say that the growing population won’t have serious consequences for how we live on earth. But strictly in terms of food production, there is no compelling evidence that we have reached earth’s limit. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, we currently produce more than 2,700 calories per person per day—a number that has increased steadily since such data became available. This is sufficient to feed everyone, or would be if the distribution of food were more equal.

So what are the real causes of hunger? In short: poverty; instability; and poor infrastructure. But these are broad topics we’ll have to tackle in future posts. In the meantime, now you have a solid, evidence-based answer the next time you overhear some talk about the futility of feeding the hungry.

Your turn: What are some questions about hunger you’d like to see answered? What are the best ways to tackle hunger?

About Alex Ruthrauff

Alex is Action Against Hunger’s Donor Engagement Officer. He helps our supporters stay informed and active in the fight against hunger.

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