So Many People, So Little Land

As drought and famine threaten millions of lives in the horn of Africa, global food security — or rather insecurity — is at the forefront of development discourse. What’s more, Harvard University demographers forecast last week that before the end of the year, the world’s population will reach 7 billion. In light of these daunting statistics and what the United Nations is calling “the worst humanitarian disaster in the world,” one cannot help but wonder: how will the planet continue to feed itself?

To find an answer, international aid agencies are searching for the roots of famine. Some problems contribute more directly to food shortages than others — in the case of East Africa, climate change is severely restricting crop yields and driving up prices. Studies show that crop-killing droughts in Somalia have become more frequent and long-lasting over the past fifty years. From 1950 to 1970, they came roughly once every seven years. Since 2000, Somalia has suffered three major droughts.

Farmland in Ethiopia. Governments must encourage sustainable land use to buffer against drought and famine. (Photo: © Roderic B. Mast)

But as the world grapples with and tries to learn from the East African famine, experts are arguing that food shortages and high prices in the developing world are also attributable to a lower-profile issue: irresponsible land use.

For instance, in recent years the Ethiopian and Kenyan governments have evicted local farmers to sell their land to agribusinesses from China and India. While these sales generate governmental revenue, the agribusinesses generally produce solely for foreign markets and leave local food markets strained. A report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (download: PDF – 432.98 KB) announced that between 15 and 20 million hectares of farmland in Sub-Saharan Africa were sold to foreign interests between 2006 and 2009.

Another hot-button land issue in the developing world stems from the expansion of the global biofuels industry. In another type of land deal, governments are leasing available farmland to biofuel plants, forgoing traditional agricultural production and driving up food prices both locally and globally. During the international food crisis of 2008, for example, the IMF estimated that increased biofuel demand accounted for 70 percent of global corn price increases and 40 percent of soybean price increases.

So while land deals provide income for developing nations, unless that income is re-invested in infrastructural or agricultural development (which it often isn’t), they may leave populations vulnerable to famine during emergencies like the East African drought.

To combat short-term thinking and its adverse effects, we have to demonstrate the benefits of long-term investment in responsible land use. CI is making the case for sustainability as a top priority in field program countries through participatory land use planning, a process which encourages local input in determining the best use of land from both conservation and economic perspectives.

To put the food security issue in perspective, Harvard’s research predicted that 97 percent of the projected population increase of 2.3 billion over the next half-century will occur in underdeveloped nations. The population may be surging, but we have a fixed amount of land to work with. Managing it with a short-term mindset only creates problems down the road. We have a lot of work to do — 2050 is just two generations away.

Jack Sullivan is an intern in CI’s Marketing and Communications division.


  1. Justin Nathanson says

    I, for one, think overpopulation might be the world’s biggest problem. It is creating an unsustainable strain on Earth’s resources and forcing the future of humanity to hang in the balance. The distribution of the population makes things worse…only so many can fit into one space.

    In general, it’s time to stop growing, and to begin becoming more sustainable. We’ve got to promote family planning in all area’s of the world – support organizations that are trying to get contraceptives to the 200 million women in the world who lack and want them, and help them obtain equal rights, education and job opportunities. Access to contraceptives and reproductive freedom are rights, not luxuries, that ultimately benefit all of humanity. Vote for leaders who vigorously promote those humane solutions. And demand that media start educating the public every day on the role played by the unsustainable human numbers behind environmental degradation and human calamities — and start covering the solutions.

    Justin Nathanson
    “The Drill Project: Save a Species”

  2. between the lines says

    Human overpopulation is at the root of all our other problems, I agree.

    Unfortunately there are massive vested interests militating against the humane contraceptive approach that you and I both advocate Justin. Everybody from the Pope and his hierarchy to families who wish to control their young women and girls to Big Business and Big Government who want a large pool of labour, consumers and taxpayers to left-wing Greens who seek to blame “capitalism” for all our ills. They all prefer to bury their heads in the sand and deny the only alternative, which is the well-known Malthusian checks.

  3. D. Kirton says

    I’m no expert but when the average man on the street takes into account historical events which resulted the disproportionate imbalance of the worlds economies, I find it hard to believe that over population is the main reason why people won’t eat today and tonight. Is this a case of ‘the more we know the less we see’ ?
    Just wondering?

  4. Steven Earl Salmony says

    Attractive preternatural thought, theory and ideology are knowingly substituted for scientific evidence when needs of the super-rich and powerful require it. Broadcasts of what is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially agreeable, religiously tolerable and culturally prescribed are articulated so often by absurdly enriched talking heads in the mass media that what is illusory becomes readily mistaken for what could somehow be real. If no intellectually honest speech is uttered, no morally courageous questions asked, no pronoucements of what serves the interests of greed are to be doubted, no words of what could be real are to be spoken, is this not the way silence kills the world that virtually everyone claims to be protecting and preserving.

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