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An important new article was published in Science magazine this spring, The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection. Two of the three lead authors serve on Population Media Center’s Program Advisory Board: Eileen Crist and Bob Engelman. The third, Camilo Mora, gave a keynote address at a Population Media Center (PMC) organized conference in Washington, DC several years ago.
In their paper, the expert trio point out that attaining high standards of human welfare and ensuring the long-term health of the natural world are foundational goals of sustainable development. However, the already enormous food needs of over 7.5 billion human beings strongly imply that ongoing population growth will undermine protection of the remaining natural world as we head further into the 21st century.
A contributing solution? Population.
“An important approach to sustaining biodiversity and human well-being is through actions that can slow and eventually reverse population growth: investing in universal access to reproductive health services and contraceptive technologies, advancing women’s education, and achieving gender equality.”
As the paper progresses, the authors recount how the population issue became marginalized in both popular consciousness and even in scientific circles through the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. The well-reported breaching of 7 billion people in October 2011 created new awareness of the demographic pressures piling on the planet – especially as it relates to food production.
The production and trade of soybeans and palm oil serve to illustrate the point. Chinese soybean imports, for example, grew from $75 million in 1995 to $38 billion in 2013. On the basis of present trends, one agribusiness study estimated that by 2024, Chinese soybean demand could outstrip the current soybean production of the United States, Brazil, and Argentina combined. How such demand, reflecting growing meat consumption in only one developing nation, can be met without conversion of more forested or other uncultivated lands is unclear.
In terms of biodiversity conservation, human-induced stressors, including agricultural expansion, continue to drive extinctions, wild species population declines, and habitat destruction. Meanwhile, the once clear dichotomy between the global North and the global South is “becoming outmoded by the growth of a global consumer class, which has increased by hundreds of millions of people in the past two decades and will grow by billions in the decades ahead.” This shifting economic profile of the global population portends vastly increased material and food consumption.
Importantly, the authors emphasize that extending the carrying capacity for people over the last century has succeeded largely by means of usurping resources from other species. For example, “the transformation of the American plains for food production wiped out 99% of the grasslands biome along with the great diversity of plants, animals, and other organisms that constituted it.”
While paper argues strongly for greatly expanding protected areas as a conservation strategy, and documents the dire status of current global biodiversity trends, it rightly pushes the envelope and sets out a progressive plan of action to address the population variable as a conservation tactic:
Wherever human rights–promoting policies to lower fertility rates have been implemented, birth rates have declined within a generation or two. Policies include prominent public discourse on the issue; prioritizing the education of girls and women; establishing accessible and affordable family planning services; provisioning modern contraceptive methods through diverse outlets; deploying health workers for grassroots education and support; making counseling for couples available; eliminating governmental incentives for large families; and making sexuality education mandatory in school curricula.
The authors warn that deceleration of global population growth will not serve as a “silver bullet” to stave off biodiversity destruction: we need action on a host of issues. For example, efficiency gains and conservation in energy and materials use, drastically reducing the production of throwaway and rapidly obsolescing products, and abolishing destructive subsidies such as those that encourage fossil fuel production and overfishing.
However, progressively addressing global population growth will help – while simultaneously strengthening human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. Human population size and future dynamics are powerful forces that are eminently amenable to positive change.
“In our efforts to halt the extinction crisis and to bequeath a biodiverse planet to future generations, willingness to marshal the resources and deploy proven tactics to address the population question is crucial,” the trio concludes.