Population: Fiction and Fact

The full-page advertisement below has been placed in many major newspapers and magazines by a group called the Environmental Fund. Signed by such dignitaries as Zbigniew Brzezi sky, President Carter's National Security Advisor; Burt Gookin of the multinational H.J. Heinz Company, ; Clifton Fadiman of Encyclopedia Britan nica; Henry Luce III of Time Inc.; William Phillips of the International Multifoods Corp.; DeWitt Wallace of the Reader's Digest; and Nobel Prize-winner Albert Szent-Gyor gyi, it succinctly sets out the widely held view that poverty, and environmental deterioration are caused by overpopulation. In this article the NEW INTERNATIONALIST replies to the Environmental Fund and points out some facts which the advertisement opposite finds it convenient to omit.

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1 World food production cannot keep pace with the galloping growth of population.


Every year the world produces more than enough food, in grains alone, to give every person on earth the same calorie intake as the average European or North American. In addition, it is estimated that only half of the world's potential agricultural land is now being cultivated. In Ecuador, for example, only 14 per cent of the tillable land is being used. In Colombia, large landowners occupy 70 per cent of the agricultural land but only six per cent of it is farmed. Far from ,not being able to keep pace', it has been estimated by W.H. Pawney of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation that the earth's resources could feed almost ten times the present population.

2 Family planning will not and cannot, in the foreseeable future, check this runaway population growth.


Population growth is not running away. There is already evidence that the rate of world population growth is beginning to slow down. The annual excess of births over deaths appears to have peaked at around 69 million in 1970 and stalled to about 63 million by 1975. The United Nations predicts that the rate of world population growth will fall from 1.95 per cent in 1975/80 to 1.93 per cent in 1980/85. USAID's Office of Population argues that the rate is already down to 1.63 per cent and will drop below the one per cent mark by 1985. The much publicised cry of "eight billion by the year 2000" is therefore going to be proved wrong. The UN Fund for Population Activities estimates the end-of-the-century population at 6,196 million.

"There is now evidence," says Jyoti Shankar Singh of UNFPA, "of a steady downward trend in the world rate of population growth." In the context of economic development which meets the basic needs of the majority of people, family planning programmes can be and have been successful.

3  The problem is too many people. The food shortage is simple evidence of the problem.


Because enough food is now being grown to feed everyone in the world adequately and because much more food could be grown with existing land and existing technology, the problem of food shortages cannot simply be put down to "too many people".

The most salient factor of all about the food crisis is that only the poor starve. And they starve because they are poor - because they cannot afford to buy the food that is grown and do not have the purchasing power to stimulate the demand for much greater quantities of food that could be grown. In other words people are hungry because of a market system which puts economic demand before human demand and therefore allocates food to those who can afford it rather than those who need it. In Central America and the Caribbean, for example, 70 per cent of the children are estimated to be malnourished while 50 per cent of the agricultural land is producing export crops like tomatoes or cut flowers for North America. In the Sahelian region of Africa, the export of crops like cotton and peanuts from some countries actually increased during the drought years of the early 1970's in which so many thousands died.

If it is true that the problem of food is really a problem of too many people, how would the Environmental Fund explain the fact that China, which to the best of our knowledge has little or no malnutrition, has twice as many people per acre of cultivated land as India? Or that Taiwan, with no malnutrition, has twice as many people per cultivated acre of land as Bangladesh?

4 Some nations are now on the brink of famine because their populations have grown beyond the carrying capacities of their lands. Population growth has pushed the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America onto lands which are only marginally suitable for agriculture.


It is true that millions of poor people are now cultivating marginal lands such as desert fringes and the steep slopes of hillsides at great risk of soil erosion. But it is not true to say that they have been pushed there only by the pressure of increasing population. Poor farmers cultivate the steep slopes of Colombian valleys but the good and level land is largely in the hands of absentee estate owners who are using it to produce animal feed and flowers for export - $18 million worth in 1975 alone. In Haiti peasants struggle to survive on the precarious mountain slopes whilst fertile valley lands below produce sugar, coffee, cocoa and alfalfa to be fed to cattle owned by MacDonald's hamburger chain.

5 For a quarter of a century the United States has been generous with its food surpluses, now vanished.


U.S. food aid, under the well-known PL480 'Food for Peace' programme has been massive and generous. But in the Department of Agriculture it has always been known, officially, as a 'surplus disposal programe'. Senator McGovern has said of the programme - "It was almost as though the needy nations were doing us a favour by letting us give away or sell under concessionary arrangements our unwanted farm surplus". Official annual reports on the PL480 programme clearly state that "balance of payments benefits have resulted from PL480 operations. The great expansion in commercial sales of U.S. farm products has resulted in an average annual balance of payments saving of $1.5 billion since the programme began." In 1974, half of all the food aid and loans - under PL480 titles 1 and 2 - went to Vietnam and Cambodia. In that year Vietnam received five times as much food aid as the whole of Latin America put together and Cambodia got $40 million more than the whole of Africa. At a generous estimate, only half of US food aid has gone to nations hard-hit by hunger.

6 What the developing countries actually said at the World Population Conference in Bucharest i n 1974.


"All couples and individuals have the basic right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the information, education and means to do so; the responsibility of couples and individuals in the exercise of this right takes into account the needs of their living and future children and their responsibilities towards the community."

7 The crisis exists because parents want more than two children. In Moslem countries the desired number of progeny per couple . . . turns out to be seven.


Why do people in developing countries want more than two children?

One reason is that for millions of people there is no unemployment pay, no sickness benefit, and no old-age pension. Children are therefore their only security in periods of unemployment, illness and old-age.

Another reason is that children can be an economic asset and not an economic liability. A study by Ben White in Indonesia, for example, indicates that children can be net contributors to the family income by the age of seven or eight.

Another reason is that children in many rural areas of the Third World do jobs like fetching water and firewood and tending cattle (which taken together can occupy 12 hours a day every day) and also help in looking after young children, cooking, cleaning and mending clothes - all of these are tasks which children can and do perform and which free adults for other jobs.

Another reason is that infant mortality rates are high in the developing world and many children are often necessary to ensure that some survive. In some regions, only half of the children survive to their fifth birthday. A peasant family in rural India, for example, has to have an average of 6.5 children to be 95 per cent certain of one surviving son.

"It has been made clear, " says Rafael Salas, Executive Director of the UN Fund for Population Activities, "that even the broadest family planning campaigns on their own are largely ineffective of producing a lower rate of population growth."

"I broadly accept the view," he continues, "that large families in the Third World are an intelligent response to people's economic circumstances."

8 India has accomplished virtually nothing . . .


It is true that India has the oldest family planning programme in Asia and that the results have been very disappointing. "It is not true to say that family planning in India is a failure" says Leon Tabah, Director of the UN's Division of Population. "A slow-down in the rate of population growth is beginning there."

It is also true that China has one of the newest family planning programmes in Asia and that the result has been the greatest slow-down of population growth ever known. The major difference is that the Chinese family planning programme has taken place in the context of overall development which has been directed towards meeting the basic needs of all the people so that large families are no longer a necessity.

A spectacular slow-down of population growth has also been achieved in Mauritius. This success is attributed, by the Minister of Economic Planning and Development, Rabindranath Ghurburrun, to "the spread of education and the improvement of income levels and the integration of family planning activities and maternal and child health care."

9 We in the USA are going to find that we cannot provide for the world any more than we can police it.


The United States has five per cent of the world's population and consumes more than 30 per cent of the world's resources. Between 1950 and 1965 United States companies invested just over $9 billion in Africa, Asia and Latin America and repatriated almost $26 billion in profits from those investments. The real question is not whether the U.S. can continue to produce for the world but whether the world can continue to produce for the U.S.

10 Producing and distributing more food.


The solution is not for the United States to produce and distribute more food and is not to be found by analysing the problem merely in terms of how much food and how many people on a global scale. It is to be found by asking what land is being used, by which people, for what purpose and for whose benefit.

11 Environmental concern.


If the concern about population growth is motivated by concern for the environment then it is necessary to restate the fact that although the Third World has 70 per cent of the world's people and 80 per cent of its population growth, it has only seven per cent of the world's industry, eleven per cent of the world's GNP, and consumes only ten per cent of the world's resources. In that context, the small rate of population increase in the rich world puts about eight times as much pressure on world resources as the rapid population increase in the poor world. "Even a slight redistribution of the world's resources," says World Bank economist Mahbud ul Haq "can help ease the pressure on world resources far more than any possible reduction in the population gowth rate of the Third World."

If the environment is the cause for concern, then the population explosion in the Third World is less important that the consumption explosion in the rich world.

mag cover This article is from the September 1979 issue of New Internationalist.
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