Global Challenges Facing Humanity
3. How can population growth and resources be brought into balance?
World population is expected to grow another 1 billion in just 12 years, creating unprecedented demand for food, water, energy, and employment. Population growth is expected to be most rapid in the 49 least developed countries, which will double the size from around 900 million today to 1.8 billion in 2050. There were only1 billion humans in 1804; 2 billion in 1927; 6 billion in 1999; and 7.2 billion by 2013. UN forecasts a range from 8.3 billion to 10.9 billion people by 2050, with 9.6 billion as the mid-projection.
Population dynamics are changing from high mortality and high fertility to low mortality and low fertility, with an increasingly elderly population worldwide. The world’s fertility rate has fallen from 6 children in 1900 and 5 in 1950 to 2.5 today. If fertility rates continue to fall, world population could actually shrink to 6.2 billion by 2100, creating an elderly world difficult to support. Today life expectancy at birth is 68 years, which is projected to grow to 81 by 2100; with advances in longevity research, this projection will increase. About 20% of the world will be over 60 by 2050, and 20% of the older population will be aged 80 or more. Some 20% of Europeans are 60 or older, compared with 10% in Asia and Latin America and 5% in Africa.
More than 20 countries have falling populations, which could increase to 44 by 2050, with the vast majority of them in Europe. By 2050 there could be as many people over 65 as under 15, requiring new concepts of retirement. Countering this “retirement problem” is the potential for future scientific and medical breakthroughs that could give people longer and more productive lives than most would believe possible today. People will work longer and create many forms of tele-work, part-time work, and job rotation to reduce the economic burden on younger generations and to maintain living standards.
To keep up with population and economic growth, food production should increase by 70% by 2050. Meat consumption is predicted to increase from 37 kg/ person/year in 2000 to over 52 kg/person/year by 2050; if so, then 50% of cereal production would go to animal feed. Farm processing insects for animal feed may offer a more sustainable option as"Insects are everywhere and they reproduce quickly, and they have high growth and feed conversion rates and a low environmental footprint," according to FAO. Some 2 billion people worldwide already supplement their diet with insects today.FAO’s Food Price Index as of April 2013 is about 9% lower than its peak in February 2011. However, food prices may rise again due to increasing affluence (especially in India and China), soil erosion and the loss of cropland, increasing fertilizer costs (high oil prices), market speculation, aquifer depletion, falling water tables and water pollution, diversion of crops to biofuels, increasing meat consumption, falling food reserves, diversion of water from rural to urban, and a variety of climate change impacts.
The number of hungry people declined by 132 million between 1990-92 and 2010-12. Yet, about 870 million people, or one in eight in the world, are chronically undernourished today. FAO lists 35 countries that are in need of external food assistance and WFP provides food assistance to more than 90 million people in 73 countries. Yet in some of these countries, agricultural lands (mostly in sub-Saharan Africa) are being sold or leased to foreign investors to feed people in their own countries. Since 2006, more than 400 large-scale land-grabs covering nearly 35 million hectares of land in 66 countries have been reported. European- and Asian-based investors account for about two-thirds of the deals listed by GRAIN. Grain imports to the Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa increased to 70 million tons in 2011, more than doubling since 1990. OECD estimates that the private sector’s investment in farmland and agricultural infrastructure is as much as $25 billion and could double or triple over the next three to five years. Responsible Agricultural Investment, backed by the World Bank and UN agencies, aims to promote investment that respects local rights and livelihoods, but it is heavily criticized by NGOs as a move to legitimize land grabbing.
Massive wheat damage by the Ug99 fungus in 2009 was less in 2010; its genome is now sequenced and Ug99-resistant wheat is now available; nevertheless, creating alternatives would be wise to avoid future pandemics like the Ug99 fungus. Conventional farming relying on expensive inputs is not resilient to climatic change. Agricultural productivity could decline 9–21% in developing countries by 2050 as a result of global warming. Small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years by using ecological methods. Agroecological farming projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects. GM cotton crops in China have cut pesticide use in half since the introduction of insect-resistant BT cotton in 2007, but monocultures undermine biodiversity, which is critical for agricultural viability.
New agricultural approaches are needed, such as producing pure meat without growing animals, better rain-fed agriculture and irrigation management, genetic engineering for higher-yielding and drought-tolerant crops, reducing losses from farm to mouth, precision agriculture and aquaculture, planting sea grass to bring back wild fish populations, and saltwater agriculture (halophytes) on coastlines to produce food for human and animals, biofuels, and pulp for the paper industry as well as to absorb CO2, reduce the drain on freshwater agriculture and land, and increase employment. The global market for organic food and beverages increased threefold in the past decade, with organic agriculture found on 37 million hectares in 160 countries.
Examples of other ways to help balance future populations and resources include: encourage vegetarianism, anticipate potential impacts of synthetic biology and other longevity technologies that could make aging healthier and more productive, accelerate safe nanotech R&D (to help reduce material use per unit of output while increasing quality), encourage telemedicine (including online self-diagnosis expert software) and mobile phone tele-education (although the vast majority of the world is literate, there are still 1.4 billion who are not, and illiterates are the majority in 21 countries), integrate urban sensors to create smarter cities, and teach urban systems ecology. Some 52% of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas; by 2025 it will increase to 58%. In 2025, 4.3 billion urban residents will generate 2.2 billion tons of solid waste per year, an increase from 1.3 billion tons per year today.
Without more intelligent human-nature symbioses, increased migrations, conflicts, and disease seem inevitable. ICT continues to improve the match between needs and resources worldwide in real time, and nanotech will help reduce material use per unit of output while increasing quality.
Challenge 3 will be addressed seriously when the annual growth in world population drops to fewer than 30 million, the number of hungry people decreases by half, the infant mortality rate decreases by two-thirds between 2000 and 2015, and new approaches to aging become economically viable.
Africa: More than half of global population growth between now and 2050 is expected tooccur in Africa.Africa’s population doubled in the past 27 years to reach 1 billion. It is projected to reach 2.7 billion in 2060, and possibly growing to 3.6 billion by 2100. Half of Africa’s population is age 17 or less, and the active population age 15–64 will triple between 2005 and 2060. By 2050, one in every three births will be African, and almost one in three children under the age of 18 will also be African. UNICEF estimated 60% of urban dwellers live in slum conditions today; children in these conditions are less likely to go to school and have poor nutrition, increasing future unemployment and probabilities of prolonged social conflicts. Very rapid growth of the young population and low prospects for employment in most nations in sub-Saharan Africa and some nations in the North Africa could lead to prolonged instability until at least the 2030s. Historically, however, growing populations have often led to the economic growth. Yet increasing population density, coupled with degrading soil fertility and climate change, will put immense pressure on natural resources. Hence, increasing investments into rural nutritionally rich agriculture and women, who lead African agriculture, will reduce malnutrition—Africa’s greatest public health problem. Much of the urban management class is being seriously reduced by AIDS, which is also lowering life expectancy. Only 28% of married women of childbearing age are using contraceptives, compared with the global average of 62%. Conflicts continue to prevent development investments, ruin fertile farmland, create refugees, compound food emergencies, and prevent better management of natural resources.
Asia and Oceania: China plans to spend some 40 trillion yuan ($6.5 trillion) on urbanization, bringing 400 million people to cities over the next decade. China has more than 170 cities with populations over 1 million, and the number could increase to 221 by 2025. China has to feed 22% of the world’s population with less than 7% of the world’s arable land. There were six Chinese children for every one elder in 1975; by 2035 there will be two elders for every one child. China is growing old before it has grown rich. The median age of Japan is almost 45 years; by 2040 it will be 55 and its population decreases from 127 million to 106 million. Suicide and depression cost Japan $32 billion. Suicides have exceeded 30,000 annually since 1998. Approximately a third of the population in the Middle East is below 15; another third is 15–29; youth unemployment there is over 25%. New concepts of employment may be needed to prevent political instability. Farmers in Asia are getting older; the average age of Thai farmers was 42 in 2010, a jump from 31 in 1985. About 5 million people are estimated to be severely food-insecure. Mandatory labeling of GM food will be introduced in India from January 2013. Indonesia has banned exports of 14 un-processed raw minerals. China is reducing its export of scarce strategic rare earth metals. By 2030, Australia will be the second largest LNG producer after Qatar if planned projects go ahead.
Europe: By 2030 Europe’s population is expected to peak and then decline, losing as much as 100 million people in the next 50 years. Women’s life expectancy at birth in EU by 2060 could reach 89.1 years, up from 82.5 in 2010; men’s could be 84.6 years, up from 76.7 in 2010. About 30% of the population will be 60 or older in 2060, and the number of workers supporting pensioners will decrease from four to two. The Center for Strategic and International Studies forecasts that people of Muslim origin will grow to 25% of France and 33% of Germany by 2050. Europe’s low fertility rate and its aging and shrinking population will force changes in pension and social security systems, incentives for more children, and increases in immigrant labor, affecting international relations, culture, and the social fabric. East to West European migrations are expected to continue and rural populations are expected to shrink, freeing additional land for agriculture. Russia’s population peaked at 149 million in 1991 and then began a decade-long decline, falling at a rate of about 0.5% per year due to declining birth rates, rising death rates, and emigration; the last few years, however, have seen some population growth, increases in life expectancy, and immigration. About 2.5% of Russia’s economically active population in 2011 was legal migrants. Nearly two-thirds of the youth in Greece are jobless.
Latin America: About 85% of the region will be urban by 2030, requiring massive urban and agricultural infrastructural investments. Over 53 million people are malnourished. Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua have approved food security laws to ensure local agricultural products are primarily used to feed their own populations and not for export; nine more countries are planning the same. Latin America’s elderly population is likely to reach 188 million in 2050 or 18.5% of the total population. By 2050, half of Mexico’s population will be older than 43, with an 18-year increase in median age. As fertility rates fall in Brazil and longevity increases by 50% over the next 20 years, the ability to meet financial needs for the elderly will diminish; hence, the concept of retirement will have to change, and social inclusion will have to improve to avoid future intergenerational conflicts. Peru imposed a 10-year moratorium on imports of GMO products; Peru is one of the world’s leading exporters of organic food, with $3 billion in annual revenue.
North America: Minorities in the United States are now the majority of those under one year old. The number of elderly prisoners jumped 1,300% since the 1980s. The number of those 65 or older in the U.S. is expected to grow from about 40 million in 2009 to 72 million in 2030. Less than 2% of the U.S. population provides the largest share of world food exports, while more than 10% of households are food-insecure and two-thirds of people in the U.S. are overweight or obese. The prevalence of type 1 diabetes among American youth increased 23% from 2002 to 2009. Reducing “throw-away” consumption could change the population-resource balance. Biotech and nanotech are just beginning to have an impact on medicine; hence dramatic breakthroughs in longevity seem inevitable in 25–50 years. Vancouver, Toronto, and Calgary are among the five most livable cities of the world. North American farmers are increasingly asking: “How can we ensure that our farming systems are resilient enough to withstand weather extremes?” Global warming should increase Canadian grain exports.
Graph using Trend Impact Analysis; it is part of the 2012 SOFI computation (See Chapter 2, SOFI 2012)
If you would like to update and improve this challenge please enter your text in the space provided below. Although it is not required, if you would like to be included in our statistics for each challenge. Please fill in the contact information in the first part of the form below.
- To update the challenge anonymously click here to go directly to that section of the form.