Food shortage refers to a situation in which the supplies within a region cannot provide sufficient energy and nutritional demands of the population within that particular region. Some factors have been pointed to as core to the problem of food shortage. These include the problem of production – the inability to produce adequate foods to meet the demands of regional needs and logistical problems associated with the inability to import enough foods. In addition to the above, food shortage is also created in instances where excess food is exported from regions of production without regard to the demands of those regions. “Historically, the great hunger of Ireland (1845-1847) and the famine of Bengal (1944) have been attributed more to British political decisions to export locally produced grain supplies without compensating imports than to production shortfalls per se” (Buchanan-Smith, Davies & Petty, p. 71).
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Whereas several reasons have been advanced as the causative factors of food shortage, the global problem of population explosion remains the main factor behind food shortage. It is a natural fact that if a population of any species is uncontrolled, then it has to become burdensome on the existing resources. As the world’s population grows every year, there is increased pressure on available production factors such as arable land, energy, water, and biological resources that are critical in the supply of food while at the same time maintaining the balance of the ecosystem. Statistics provided by relevant bodies are very grim and points towards a bigger food problem and acute energy and nutritional shortages in the future.
Pimentel, Huang, Cordova, and Pimentel (p. 351) illustrate that “according to the World Bank and the United Nations, from 1 to 2 billion humans are now malnourished, indicating a combination of insufficient food, low incomes, and inadequate distribution of food”. This remains a historical figure given the fact that it is the largest number hungry population recorded in the history of mankind. “In China, about 80 million are now malnourished and hungry; based on current rates of increase; the world population is projected to double from roughly 6 billion to more than 12 billion in less than 50 years” (Pimentel et al., p. 353).
The relationship between the increase in population and food shortage is very real given the connection between availability created by supply and demand which is increased by the increase in population. Pimentel et al (p. 354) proceed to point out that “As the world population expands, the food problem will become increasingly severe, conceivably with the numbers of malnourished reaching 3 billion”. The growing imbalance between the world’s population and resources that support the lives of human beings is a major concern to governments and institutions globally. Reports available from Food and Agricultural Organization, scientific research institutions, think tanks and numerous international organizations abide in the existence of acute shortage and escalation of the problem of food security shortly. According to Pimentel et al (p. 356), “the per capita availability of world grains, which make up 80 percent of the world’s food, has been declining for the past 15 years which means that with a quarter-million people being added to the world population each day, the need for grains and all other food will reach unprecedented levels”.
A large fraction of the food supply that supports the lives of humans comes from land while a very small fraction comes from other sources. “More than 99 percent of the world’s food supply comes from the land, while less than 1 percent is from oceans and other aquatic habitats” (Pimentel et al., p. 347). The ability to provide adequate food supply to meet the rising demands, therefore, depends on the availability of ample fertile land, adequate water, energy, and biodiversity. The growth of the human population is directly proportional to the demands of these critical resources. According to Ayisi (p. 33), “Even if these resources are never depleted, on a per capita basis they will decline significantly because they must be divided among more people”.
The increasing population is not only putting pressure on the available resources but is also creating other challenges related to increasing demands for quality social demands such as healthcare. Whereas the world is experiencing a population explosion, the size of fertile land is declining at an alarming rate. The pressure put on land but man is indeed a concern. This is echoed by Barkin, Rosemary, and DeWalt (p. 12) in stating that “At present, fertile cropland is being lost at an alarming rate; for instance, nearly one-third of the world’s cropland (1.5 billion hectares) has been abandoned during the past 40 years because erosion has made it unproductive.” Rectifying the problem of soil erosion is not a simple task in that it can take up to five hundred years to form 25mm of fertile soil capable of supporting the lives of crops.
In addition to the above, the increase in population is putting a lot of pressure on water resources. Water remains critical for the survival of almost all types of crops. According to Ayisi (p. 33), “a hectare of corn will transpire more than 5 million liters of water during one growing season; this means that more than 8 million liters of water per hectare must reach the crop.” This means that the demand for water by crops exceeds that of human beings. “Specifically, about 87 percent of the world’s freshwater is consumed or used up by agriculture and, thus, is not recoverable” (Pimentel et al., p. 357). The question that we remain to ponder over is what happens next when both water and fertile land are under pressure by population explosion.
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The competition for water resources transcends al all levels of society. Individuals, tribes, regions, the government have constantly come into conflict as a result of competition for water resources. This fact is buttressed by Bates (p. 334) in demonstrating that “About 40 percent of the world’s people live in regions that directly compete for shared water resources; in China where more than 300 cities already are short of water, these shortages are intensifying”. The shortages in water supply globally are reflected by the decline in the combined size of farmlands under irrigation. Water resources that are critical for irrigation and the production of food for the support of human lives are under great stress and pressure. This is because of the increase in population that has led to the birth of populous cities, states and regions.
The increase in population is so intertwined with other factors that all arrive at food shortage. On energy, an increase in the number of motor vehicles and industrial demands that are products of population increase is putting pressure on oil reserves. Because fossil energy is a finite resource, its depletion goes on faster with the increase in the population demands for food. The United States alone has been recorded as importing more than fifty percent of its crude oil. According to Bates (p. 337), “U.S. Department of Energy indicates that the country will exhaust all of its oil reserves within the next 15 to 20 years, oil imports will then have to increase, worsening the U.S. trade imbalance.” The dwindling supplies of fossil energy will translate to increases in the cost of fuel everywhere. Where will such a situation leave farmers in the developing countries who rely on energy to irrigate their farms?
This problem is perhaps best illustrated by Buchanan-Smith, Davies & Petty (p. 71) in stating that “The impact of this is already a serious problem for developing countries where the high price of imported fossil fuel makes it difficult, if not impossible, for poor farmers to power irrigation and provide for their other agricultural needs.” This means that farmers will lack the capacity to produce adequate foods capable of supporting the lives of humans in these regions. The biggest challenge that developing countries face includes their reliance on fossil fuels in powering their agricultural farms. In addition to the above, they have recorded the largest increase in population in comparison to the developed counties.
The concern for food imbalance in the world today is supported by two observations. “First, most of the 183 nations of the world are now to some extent, dependent on food imports” (Buchanan-Smith, Davies & Petty, p. 71). Most of these imports are come in the form of cereal surpluses from nations with low population densities and involved in large-scale agriculture. “Major producers of cereals in the world Argentina, Canada, United States and Australia that produces more than 80% percent of the total world’s cereal” (Bates, p. 339). According to Bates (p. 339) “If, as projected, the U.S. population doubles in the next 60 years then its cereal and other food resources would have to be used domestically to feed 520 million hungry Americans”. This would mean that the United States and other exporting countries will cease to be exporters and in turn produce adequate cereals for its population or even become importers in case of market uncertainties.
Malnutrition and hunger will then begin when exporting countries begin to keep their surpluses at home. Import-dependent countries such as Egypt, Jordan, parts of Asia, and Africa will lack the imports to enable their populations to survive. “As the World-Watch Institute has pointed out, if China’s population increases by 500 million and their soil erosion continue unabated, it will need to import 200-400 million tons of food each year by 2050” (Brown, p. 15). The problem is that there will be nowhere to find such a massive amount of food in the international market. Last, the availability of nutritious foods such as fish is near depletion given the demand that overweighs supply for several decades.
The connections and relationship between population and food shortage transcend all areas of human life and as such encompasses various aspects of demands that support human life. Almost all resources available for the support of human life aim at achieving food security for humans. It is therefore imperative that any form of pressure on any resource definitely threatens food security and eventually leads to food shortage.
- Ayisi, Ruth. “Mozambique: Drought and Desperation.”Africa Report. 37.3 (1992): 33-35.
- Barkin, David, Rosemary, Batt and Billie, DeWalt. Food Crops versus Feed Crops. Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner, 1990.
- Bates, Robert. “Governments and Agricultural Markets in Africa”. Toward a Political Economy of Development: A Rational Choice Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press. (1988): 331-358.
- Brown, L.R. Who Will Feed China? New York: W.W. Norton. 1995.
- Buchanan-Smith, Margaret, Susanna Davies, and Celia Petty. Food Security: Let Them Eat Information. IDS Bulletin 25, No. 2: (1994): 69-80.
- Pimentel, David, Huang, Xuewen Cordova, Anna and Pimentel, Marcia. Natural resources and an optimum human population. Population and Environment 15: (1994): 347-369.