Feeding the World the Long-Term Outlook: Negative Population Growth by the End of the Twenty-First Century Could Mean Less Demand on Resources and More Food for Everyone

By Tweeten, Luther; Zulauf, Carl | The Futurist, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview

Feeding the World the Long-Term Outlook: Negative Population Growth by the End of the Twenty-First Century Could Mean Less Demand on Resources and More Food for Everyone


Tweeten, Luther, Zulauf, Carl, The Futurist


In October 1999, the earth's population surpassed 6 billion people, a milestone greeted by doomsayers with expressions of gloom. Supporting this gloom is the declining growth rate in crop yields. Though supply and demand are now growing at almost the same rate, there are still fears that food demand will eventually outpace food supply. Growing evidence shows, however, that when negative population growth--predicted by the end of the twenty-first century--as well as environmental and other factors are taken into account, we can avoid a threatened global food crisis.

Society's Four Transitional Stages

Economists often refer to four transitions or stages of societies based on demographics, economics, agricultural productivity, and technological advancements. The first stage is a traditional society, characterized by low population density and low economic and population growth. In this society, which may be a country or a region, high birthrates match high death rates, while primitive technology contributes to low income and low living standards.

The second stage is a developing stage, occurring when a society's technological advancements result in sustainable agricultural production and plant and animal domestication. The result is a more plentiful food supply, which helps increase population growth mainly by slowing death rates. When population and food production growth are combined with industrialization and urbanization at this stage, the result is environmental exploitation and degradation present in many developing societies.

Increases in agricultural productivity and production bring economic surpluses that allow growth in capital and per capita income; the third stage, the developed society, is born. Birthrates fall faster than death rates as the roles of women change and developments in birth-control methods allow adults to choose the number of children they want.

Finally, stage four, the mature society, sees notable technological change evolve beyond agriculture (particularly in medicine and public health), making death rates decline further.

While many technological breakthroughs in developing societies come from innovative laypersons, breakthroughs in developed societies tend to require scarce, highly trained, experienced, and costly technicians and scientists. By the time the mature society develops, the most readily accessible raw materials have been exploited. Obsolescence of current technology requires investment in maintenance rather than in new technologies. Increase in productivity of service activities, which grow in importance, becomes more difficult than increases in agricultural and manufacturing productivity. Some developed regions choose to sacrifice some economic growth for equity. Thus, while productivity and income continue to rise, the rate of these increases slows.

Rapid agricultural productivity gains continue in developed societies as investments in education and science made in the development stage produce long-term payoffs and as urbanization and industrialization lead to an exodus of agricultural labor. At the same time, slowing rates of income growth and population growth also slow down the growth in demand for food. Food self-sufficiency increases in some countries after falling in the development stage. However, agricultural trade typically grows as more affluent consumers demand a variety of foods from around the world.

Many developed countries have recently entered or soon will enter the fourth stage--the mature society--the future society of the world's inhabitants. The long-held view is that global population growth will more or less stabilize; recent evidence, however, presents a strong case for negative global population growth as the seminal attribute of the mature society.

Evidence for Negative Population Growth

According to the United Nations, the total fertility rate--the number of children a woman may be expected to bear during her lifetime--has fallen in every region of the world since 1950. …

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