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Roundtable on Food and Population

The fourth roundtable of the Global Issues Project

This one-day roundtable took place at Ryerson University on Saturday 21 November. The event followed closely upon the public forum the previous evening on the same topics, held at the Koffler Centre. The papers and list of participants will be made available in due course. The roundtable was given the following stated objectives:

“ . . . to raise awareness of the relationship between population numbers, food security and a resilient food production system . . .” and to answer the following questions:

“Is food justice possible? Can the gap between rich and poor be reduced?” Are the world’s 1.2 billion hungry people “a problem of uneven use of the world’s food resources, or are there too many mouths to feed?”

“What is the carrying capacity of the Earth? Is technology the solution? What lifestyle changes are needed? Is contraception a key factor? What mechanisms can be identified to deal with social, demographic and ecological challenges?”

The four brief sessions, each followed by lively discussion, could not possibly have answered all of the above questions, but some preliminary conclusions are presented here.


It was made abundantly clear in the initial presentations that there is enough food harvested in today’s world to feed a larger population than now exists, though there are some severe local shortages. The first and foremost problem is low or very low income of the world’s poor, wherever they are. While the majority of poor people live in the Third World, the poor are numerous almost everywhere, with very many in Canada and the United States. Thus the prime cause of hunger worldwide is the systematically lower incomes in poor countries, but even in wealthy countries, the present income distribution is the prime cause of hunger. In North America income distribution is not the only food problem, since there is also widespread ignorance of nutrition — how to spend what little one has on food and how best to cook it. The ignorance tends to lead to obesity and other health problems. The wastage of food in Canada and the United States was estimated at 50 percent, yet the numbers of hungry families including especially hungry children are profoundly shocking. A guaranteed annual income for all adults would be practicable in both Canada and in the US, and could solve the income problem vis-à-vis food. Desirable though such a system might be from many standpoints, it alone could not guarantee good nutrition for all children. Much public education would be needed. Food banks were stated not to be the answer, and should be regarded as stopgap measures, as they can be far from adequate both from the standpoints of hunger elimination and nutrition.

Regarding the provision of food worldwide, it was considered that there too the current wastage is great (20 percent was estimated). While low income is a prime cause of shortage of food for millions of families, the food shortage itself is not global, notwithstanding today’s very low world grain reserves. Radical changes in global economic, investment, and trade policies are needed to reduce malnutrition. Hunger and starvation are largely the result of impoverishment resulting from the industrialized North’s policies. Many countries in the South are mired in poverty through the international loans they were induced to accept, consequent structural adjustment policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, historically rising interest rates, and the resulting unending debt repayment; forced opening of their markets to international trade and corporations, undercutting of their farmers by subsidized agricultural products from the North, use of their land for growing flowers for export, crops for biofuels and trees for palm oil, the rising cost of fertilizers and oil, inadequate storage facilities contributing to loss of harvests: all these factors result in severe food insecurity in the South.

The desirability of a recognized right to food was also favoured, though of course such a right cannot be sustained when there isn’t any food. One conclusion was easily reached at the roundtable, namely, that today’s food insecurity is not ascribable to population numbers, though this would change soon enough in a business-as-usual scenario in which the population continues to rise at the rate of 74 million people per annum, and agricultural productivity and acreage continue to decline1. Participants also noted the importance of ocean fish in diet and the decline in fish stocks of the last 20 years, and it was suggested that it no longer makes sense to supply ocean fish to people living hundreds of miles inland.

Considerable attention was paid to the relationship of food security and a resilient food production system. Here, agribusiness was widely criticized. Its productivity has been greatly exaggerated, and its determination to exterminate local seed sources was roundly criticized. One participant noted that local seeds have had the advantage of evolutionary adaptation to local conditions, whereas the stated productivity of genetically modified seeds is based largely upon laboratory tests that do not represent local growing conditions at all well. Other aspects of agribusiness were also criticized, for example, its monopolist tendencies, the deterioration of soil quality under its practices, the heavy dependence of agribusiness on fertilizers and pesticides, all of which also depend on oil supply. Agribusiness requires the total expenditure of four calories of oil energy to produce one calorie of food energy, a factor that exacerbates climate change. Nevertheless, because of its growing economic power, agribusiness is able to put local small-scale farmers out of business, and this was considered by the participants as a prime area for focus: to reverse that process — the need to support small-scale and organic farmers and promote local produce (for local consumption). Several participants raised the strongest objections to the current style of intense meat farming as shown in the movie Food Inc. Most compelling overall is that agribusiness is unsustainable because of its dependence on oil; therefore major change toward the mixed farm and the organic is called for.

It was also mentioned that a widespread change toward a vegetarian diet, or less meat eating, will be important in assuring the future adequacy of food supply.

When or before the world population reaches 9 billion, a severe food tension could appear, and a range of new measures will be needed. The practice of paving over first-class agricultural land will have to cease — the sooner the better. Second-class agricultural land not currently used for farming will have to be brought into use (and, if possible, improved in soil quality). Food production will have to be optimized on whatever land is available, and the growing of food in cities will have to be well developed. Returning compost generated in cities to restore farmlands depleted of soil nutriments could be important.


A leading question was posed to the roundtable: is the present, huge population a threat to the human race? There was strong agreement with the importance of a rapidly declining rate of population growth, and an eventual decline in population, but these needs must not be construed as arising from the current food situation. Rather, the matter of population is intimately related to how heavily we tread upon the Earth, and the ecological footprint of the human race is already 30 percent higher than the planet can provide sustainably. One presentation showed that, to achieve a sustainable Earth at 7 billion people in a just and equitable manner (for all the Earth’s inhabitants) would require a reduction of consumption of resources of more than a factor of five for the wealthiest 20 percent of humanity. It has been said elsewhere that if the human race could get off its oil dependence, it would roughly halve its ecological footprint, but this would still require a substantial cutback in the consumption of resources by the wealthiest 20 percent, if an equitable world is to be achieved. Viewed in this way, a population of seven billion is already very large. Other views that population decline is important included the notion of crowding. We share the planet with many creatures and plants, and it is well established that we are systematically eliminating them and their habitats. The roundtable ended on the note that a new, holistic paradigm is needed, one that puts the preservation of the web of life as its central philosophy.

Also discussed were many women’s issues in connection especially with the need for reproductive rights, and population limitation through family planning. It was stated that already 200 million women want the technical means of contraception, but do not have access to such assistance or cannot afford it. It was generally felt that family planning means should be widely available, free of charge. The cost would not be large, for example, infinitesimal compared with military expenditures. Most participants were already aware that the United Nations had been unable to pursue the necessary steps forward in family planning during the GW Bush period. Since then President Obama has called for the release of $50 million to the UN agency. Also an NGO (34 Million Friends of the United Nations Population Fund — a project of the United Nations Association of the USA, Pasadena chapter) is providing considerable funding2.

The oft-repeated position was again voiced that it is of the highest importance to educate girls as well as boys and eliminate illiteracy among not only the young but also female adults. Women were also discussed in many other contexts, such as leadership in the spheres of food and population, and equity in the highest decision-making councils — some of the purposes for which education of women will be so important. Numerous detailed recommendations were received, including several relating to the failures to implement recommendations of the 1994 UN Cairo Conference on Population and the 1995 women’s Beijing Conference, as well as meeting Millennium Development Goals.


1 Robert Hoffman had illustrated his talk given at the Public Forum the previous evening with results from the Global Systems Simulator (GSS), a computer model developed by him and colleagues. He chose a business-as-usual scenario, in which current trends of the input data are simply extrapolated in time. Currently, worldwide birth rates are falling slowly, and expectation of life is increasing slowly, and these are extrapolated to create some of the input data for the model. The GSS projects futures for population and for supply and demand, derived from the input data. He showed how a crop tension develops as the century advances under business as usual, as does a wood tension. Tension here means the inability of supply to keep up with demand. The wood tension (that is, for forest products) was projected in Hoffman’s model to become severe in 2038, which is unchanged from the projection made in the same model in 2006 (see SfP Bulletin, December 2006). This suggests strongly that human economic planning has not moved significantly away from “business as usual” since 2006, notwithstanding much media attention to climate change and other needs for economic change, and widespread knowledge of the need to preserve forests. ^

2 This initiative is enthusiastically supported by the President of the United Nations Association. ^

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