Observing World Population Day

Today, July 11, is World Population Day, and the United Nations is making it official: the world population will cross the 7 billion mark on Oct. 31, 2011, just 12 years after the 6 billion mark was attained. But there will be no ribbon-cutting or popping of champagne corks to commemorate the occasion. In a world suffering from climate change, water scarcity and the rising price of food and energy, population growth is a challenge, not an unequivocal triumph.

Population quadrupled in the 20th century, and despite the escalating demands that humanity was placing on the planet, the human enterprise prospered. Food production quadrupled, mortality rates dropped dramatically, human longevity doubled and living standards soared. Best of all, as the century came to a close, the costs of oil, minerals and basic food commodities fell to near historical lows. Malthusian fears were virtually extinguished.

Today, as the world approaches the 7-billion mark, confidence in the human enterprise is not so high. After decades of progress in reducing hunger and severe poverty, a global recession and two global food crises have slowed and, in some cases, reversed recent gains. Even more worrisome is an almost decade-long trend of higher and higher commodity prices for energy, minerals and basic foodstuffs.

At a minimum, the eras of cheap energy and cheap food appear to be over. If so, the fight against hunger and severe poverty will get a lot harder. It already has. While significant progress continues to be made in India, China and other parts of East Asia, gains in the rest of the developing world are grudging at best.

A report released last week on the U.N. Millennium Development Goals indicated laudable progress in areas like education, access to safe drinking water, and infant and child mortality. But the U.N. warned that "we still have a long way to go in empowering women and girls, promoting sustainable development, and protecting the most vulnerable from the devastating effects of multiple crises, be they conflicts, natural disasters, or volatility in prices for food and energy."

Thus far, the 21st century has not been kind to many countries in the developing world. When the 2007-2008 food crisis hit, the price of rice tripled, the World Bank warned that 33 countries were at risk of political upheaval, and over 100 million people slipped back into poverty. During the latest food crisis, corn and wheat prices doubled, food-importing countries in North Africa and the Middle East were hit hard, governments began toppling in the ensuing unrest, and an estimated 44 million were driven back into poverty.

The critical question, the one that really matters, is whether the food situation is becoming a chronic food crisis. Oxfam issued a report last month suggesting that due to climate change and other factors, food prices could double or more by 2030.

In order to feed a hungry world, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that food and grain production will have to increase by 70 percent in the next 40 years to keep pace with rising population and a global shift to more meat-intensive diets. In a world afflicted by rising temperatures, increasing droughts and floods, shortages of arable land, water scarcity, loss of topsoil and the escalating costs of fertilizer and fuel, that's a tall, if not impossible, order.

Every day another 200,000 people are added to the world's dinner table, and unless fertility rates drop faster than expected, that trend will continue for some time to come. And many of those additional mouths to feed are being born in countries that are already heavily dependent on external food aid for survival. Some countries, like Niger and Burkina Faso, could triple their populations by mid-century unless fertility rates drop faster than now projected.

But it's not just poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa that are struggling. A leading Pakistan authority, Dr. Abid Suleri, warned recently that food insecurity in his country is contributing to political instability. With the percentage of "food insecure" people in Pakistan rising from 37 percent in 2003 to 49 percent even before last year's devastating floods, he told the Sydney Morning Herald that when people are hungry, "[t]hey can be easy prey for terrorism, including suicide attacks. If we are going to fight terrorism we need to provide food security."

Unless we successfully address the 21st-century challenges posed by population growth, food insecurity and water scarcity, many of the gains that we have made in improving the human condition could be reversed. In addition to assisting developing nations with food production and water conservation, we urgently need to keep girls in school, empower women and make sure that family planning services and information are more widely available. Then we can celebrate, not just observe, World Population Day.