Expert Voices Vol 25, No. 04 - April 2021

Can we feed the billions?

With hundreds of millions suffering hunger, a growing population and devastating impacts of agriculture on the environment, many experts are asking themselves: will we have enough food for everyone? Ahead of the 54th session of the UN Commission on Population Development, we ask that question to Cheryl Sawyer, Senior Population Affairs Officer at UN DESA.

Whenever we hear of hunger, water shortages or climate change, many people are quick to point the finger at a growing human population. Are we really becoming too numerous to sustain ourselves?

“Since the 1960s, global growth in agricultural production has outpaced population increase. However, this success has come at a high cost. First, today’s food systems are unsustainable and create tremendous food loss and waste. Second, the current distribution of food is highly unequal, as evidenced by the persistence of hunger and malnutrition. Third, our diets generate premature mortality and chronic disease.

Continued population growth will substantially increase the demand for food by 2050, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Population growth is certainly an important driver of increased food demand, but its impact is amplified by the changes in the types and quantities of food we consume.”

Today, we are producing more than enough food to feed the world’s entire population. Are we succeeding at that?

“The current food systems are failing people and the planet in myriad ways. After more than a decade of steady decline, the number of undernourished people in the world increased to almost 690 million, or 8.9 per cent of the global population, in 2019.

Moreover, seven per cent of children under five suffer from acute malnutrition, while nearly 40 per cent of adults are overweight. More than 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet. Unhealthy diets are now responsible for more adult deaths and disability worldwide than tobacco use.

Food production is a major driver of biodiversity loss and of air and water pollution. The impact of climate change on food production is especially felt in low- and middle-income countries, where many people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.”

Where does the UN Commission on Population and Development come in?

“For the first time in its history, the UN Commission on Population and Development will consider the issue of food security and nutrition within the context of population and sustainable development.

In particular, the Commission will assess how food and nutrition policies and programmes can promote sustainable production and consumption, maternal and newborn health, child nutrition, women’s empowerment and other priorities of the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). The Commission is expected to make an important contribution to the upcoming Food Systems Summit.”

For more information, see:

Cheryl Sawyer is also the lead author of the Secretary-General’s report on population, food security, nutrition and sustainable development

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