Population Growth and Food Insecurity

Published: January 28, 2015

In 2011, drought struck the Horn of Africa, sparking widespread food shortages. An estimated 13 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya faced persistent hunger, which killed between 50,000 and 100,000 people—half of whom were children under five.

According to UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, it was East Africa’s “driest period in 60 years,” and it left people “increasingly unable to cope.” Amos states that pre-existing problems in the region, including “insecurity and conflict, population growth, poverty, and over-utilization of land” only compounded the effects of the drought.

The situation was especially dire in Somalia, where the UN declared famine. (The UN defines famine as malnutrition rates above 30 percent; at least 20 percent of households facing extreme food shortages; and a mortality rate over 2 people per 10,000 per day.) Nearly 10 million people in the Horn of Africa were still food insecure, following the drought.

Somali women have an average of 5.66 births [2019 UN data for 2020-2025] over the course of their reproductive lives. One in 11 infants dies before his or her first birthday. One in seven dies before turning five. Despite high rates of infant and child mortality, Somalia has a population growth rate of 2.9 percent; at that rate its population will double every 24 years, making food security that much farther out of reach.

Undernutrition has led to the stunted growth of 144 million children worldwide, and is responsible for 3.1 million child deaths each year in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). In LMICs, 27 percent of all babies are born small for their gestational age. “Stunted doesn’t mean simply short,” says Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF. “The child’s brain never properly develops. Irrevocably. That’s it. You can’t fix it later. You can fix being underweight. You can’t fix being stunted after age 2. What this means is, for the remainder of that child’s life, irrevocably the child will learn less in school, will earn less later, is more vulnerable to disease. This is a tragic violation of that child’s life, but it’s also a tremendous strain on that society.”

Where hunger strikes

Hunger kills more people than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. According to Hilary Benn, UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in less arable or poorly-governed parts of the world, “a perfect storm” of factors threaten global food security: rising prices, drought and other climate disasters, arable land shortages, and increasing demand. The most significant contributor to increasing demand is population growth, which is projected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050 (2019 UN medium projection).

FAO estimates that there are 690 million undernourished people. The good news is that the number decreased from its peak of 1.02 billion in 2009, when food prices spiked. The bad news is that one in 11 people still go to bed hungry each night. While some countries have made significant progress, nearly 9 percent of the world’s population is chronically hungry.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest proportion of undernourished people in any region; in 2019, 19.1% are chronically hungry—more than 250 million people—up from 17.6 percent in 2014. This is the major world region that also experiences the highest rate of population growth: 2.52% each year, for a doubling time of less than 28 years. Given that we are already falling so short of feeding everyone in sub-Saharan Africa, such rapid population growth raises serious concerns about the prospects for improving the hunger situation in the future.

Rising food prices, failing harvests

Over the last decade, food prices worldwide have risen twice as fast as inflation. Political instability can incite full-blown food crises in food-insecure regions. In DRC, ongoing conflicts have caused the undernourished population to jump from 26 percent in 1990-1992 to 70 percent in 2011. One in four children there are malnourished.

The burden of high food prices falls disproportionately on the poor, who spend 60-80 percent of their incomes on food. Women, children, and the elderly fare the worst when food is scarce. According to Biraj Patnaik, food advisor to the Indian government, “Women often, given the gender inequity in our society, ration their own food so they can feed the children and feed parents.” This is a pattern that plays out across the developing world.

In industrialized countries, farmers have been able to increase crop production when necessary; for example, they raised cereal outputs by 10 percent in 2009 during the global food crisis. But a recent report by the OECD and FAO estimates that growth in agricultural productivity will slow to just 1.7 percent annually over the next decade.

Failing harvests in the U.S., Ukraine, and other countries have eroded reserves to their lowest level since 1974. “We’ve not been producing as much as we are consuming. Supplies are now very tight across the world and reserves are at a very low level, leaving no room for unexpected events next year,” says Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist at FAO.

A number of strategies have successfully raised food production in the developing world as well, most notably the Green Revolution in India, Mexico, and to some extent, the Philippines. But in 2008, a World Bank and FAO study found that large production increases made possible through science and technology during the last 30 years have actually not improved food security for the poorest people. The study spanned six years and included the testimonies of about 400 international agricultural experts.

Rising demand

The sub-Saharan African population is projected to grow by a billion people just between now (2021) and 2050, from 1.1 billion to 2.1 billion. This is untenable given the already dire situation in terms of food security, malnourishment, and chronic hunger. FAO economist Kostas Stamoulis says that “cereal yields in developing countries will need to increase by 40 percent, irrigation water requirements will rise by up to 50 percent, and some 100-200 million hectares of additional land may be needed” in order to meet rising demand.

Just to keep up with rising demand (not to improve the current situation), FAO estimates that overall food production must increase by 70 percent by 2050. “We’re going to have to produce more food in the next 40 years than we have in the last 10,000,” says William G. Lesher, former chief economist for the USDA. “Some people say we’ll just add more land or more water. But we’re not going to do much of either.” That’s because the low-hanging fruit has already been picked, so to speak. “The easy things have been done,” says Nina V. Fedoroff, a biotechnology expert at Pennsylvania State University. “The problems that are left are hard.” Researchers estimate that it would take five times the earth’s current resources to meet the needs of a global population consuming at a rate equivalent to that of the United States today.

Long-term solution

Agricultural innovation and more equitable food distribution would reduce rates of undernourishment on our overworked planet. But a crucial part of ending the “perfect storm” is population stabilization. Tim Dyson, agriculture expert at the London School of Economics, says, “We tend to deal with what is happening now, today, tomorrow or next week. Insufficient attention is given to more fundamental processes such as population growth, or the need to invest in agriculture research for people living in difficult environments.”


    • UN: United Nations
    • FAO: Food and Agriculture Organization
    • WFP: World Food Programme
    • IFAD: International Fund for Agricultural Development
    • OECD: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development

Many of the statistics in this post were updated on March 11, 2021.