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The Food Crisis in Niger
August 2, 2010 2:40 AM   Subscribe

An ongoing drought in Niger has resulted in a famine that threatens millions of people. "These are very high levels of child malnutrition, the situation is bad," said Gianluca Ferrera, deputy director for the UN world food programme (WFP) in Niger. "The loss in harvest last year was worse than expected, and the lean season started earlier than anticipated for a larger share of the population. "In some areas, there is a 50% malnutrition rate for children under 2. Many of these children will not survive."

The crisis is not limited to within Niger's borders: The situation is critical across a band of the Sahel, from northern Mali to Chad, where 10 million people find themselves in a state of distress, beyond the critical threshold.

Despite warning signs for many months, relief efforts are slow.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 (64 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
During the previous season, I harvested 30 bundles of millet versus only 11 this time, and our reserves are already exhausted,' laments Mamane Garba, a father of 18 children.

18 children.
posted by three blind mice at 2:57 AM on August 2, 2010


There was a coup earlier this year ousting Tandja who has been accused of 'playing down' the most recent previous food crisis in 2005. Apparently the new regime has been swifter in seeking international assistance but it's been slow in coming.
The country is one of the world's major exporters of uranium but as seems often the case in resource economies, a mineral bounty has not brought too many benefits to ordinary Nigeriens.
posted by Abiezer at 3:00 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Anybody familiar with aid agencies active in Niger? To whom should I donate?
posted by iati at 3:04 AM on August 2, 2010


To whom should I donate?

Glad you asked that. When I read the Guardian piece (2nd link in the post), that article linked to this group, whom I then donated to, but (as in the Haiti crisis) I have no idea which organizations are best, and would appreciate comments from anyone who has information in that regard.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 3:09 AM on August 2, 2010


Frankly, food aid can't stop climate change. If you want to save lives, work towards capping carbon emissions. Forgive my ironic metaphor, but this is only the tip of the iceberg: the Independent article notes the "creeping Sahara" in the first sentence. In a few more decades of business-as-usual emissions, billions will be malnourished.
posted by mek at 3:14 AM on August 2, 2010


Frankly, food aid can't stop climate change.

No but it can stop starvation. I don't think this is an either/or situation. Perhaps we should be doing both.
posted by IvoShandor at 3:20 AM on August 2, 2010 [8 favorites]


Flying cars and famine, together on the front page. The future ain't all it's cracked up to be...
posted by Mr. Anthropomorphism at 5:32 AM on August 2, 2010


Frankly, food aid can't stop climate change. If you want to save lives, work towards capping carbon emissions.

Capping carbon emissions will stop climate change? Really?

I think in this case, and in every other case of famine in recent history, lack of food is not the problem. The problem is logistics; getting surplus food from point A to point B.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 5:47 AM on August 2, 2010


Two words: birth control.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:09 AM on August 2, 2010


Two words: birth control.
Two centuries plus of Malthusianism being shown to be simple-minded tosh says this is wrong and a cop-out.
posted by Abiezer at 6:15 AM on August 2, 2010 [5 favorites]


Two words: birth control.
posted by kinnakeet at 9:09 AM on August 2 [+] [!]


Birth control is great, but it turns out that the best form of birth control is prosperity.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:17 AM on August 2, 2010 [8 favorites]


The problem is logistics; getting surplus food from point A to point B.

No, I think the problem is getting surplus food from A to B without some corrupt asshole at point B stealing it and hoarding it. Also, catastrophe fatigue.
posted by spicynuts at 6:57 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]



Birth control is great, but it turns out that the best form of birth control is prosperity.


Interesting paradox. Seems to me that in a world of limited resources, more people equals less prosperity for all. Prosperity requires jobs. There are only so many jobs to go around.
posted by spicynuts at 6:58 AM on August 2, 2010


I would also like to hear from anyone with any knowledge of which aid agencies are most useful in the area.

Comments about his fecundity aren't going to help Mr Garba or his 18 children, who he already has, so birth control won't help them either. Nor will capping emissions of other types. I like long term plans but these people really need a short term plan right now.
posted by shinybaum at 7:22 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the world, there are enough goods produced for everyone, and I'd imagine the same could be true for jobs. This isn't an issue of unseen limit to the number of jobs available globally, but a mix of a governmental/national focus on oil instead of economic diversity, and subsistence farming not scaling with population growth.

If you've survived farming for yourself and your family, you aren't thinking of educating yourself in other job fields. And when 1% of the population gets 80% of the natural gas and oil wealth, it's a lot more than a job shortage.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:32 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Seems to me that in a world of limited resources, more people equals less prosperity for all. Prosperity requires jobs. There are only so many jobs to go around.

But less children means less people to work on the farm or business, and less people to take care of the family. Also, given mortality rates, the more children one has, the more survive into adulthood.

As far as donating goes, I would recommend looking into charities from InterAction, an organization that vets charities before posting them; all organizations posted (note: only US-based orgs) have to adhere to certain financial standards and transparency. You can filter for Niger.
posted by quadrilaterals at 7:36 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


18 children.

No context as to whether he's literally their biological father, whether some are adopted (taken in from other family members most likely), from multiple wives, and over how many years? For all we know he's in his 60's at this point.

It's well established historically that as long as your primary form of work is manual farming, people have lots of kids in response. Shift a society from farming and then the door to birth control opens up. China has been the only exception to this, and that has been through intense government regulation (even then, not perfect, there's a ton of undocumented "citizens").
posted by yeloson at 7:43 AM on August 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


There are only so many jobs to go around.

This is completely wrong. Jobs are created by a demand for employment. This demand is a factor of population and economic activity. There is not a finite number of jobs in the world. I mean, there are 300 million Americans where there used to be about 20 million Native Americans. Are 280 million of them unemployed? No.
posted by alasdair at 7:44 AM on August 2, 2010


18 children.

Two words: birth control.

These two comments are like talking about fashion choices in a sexual assault thread.
posted by rocket88 at 7:46 AM on August 2, 2010 [6 favorites]


There are only so many jobs to go around.

Many people would disagree with this assertion - this is called the lump of labor fallacy.
posted by iati at 7:47 AM on August 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


I would also like to hear from anyone with any knowledge of which aid agencies are most useful in the area.

The organization I work for is responding to the food crisis - World Vision in many of these situations will distribute more of World Food Programme's food than WFP will themselves, as we have a larger on-the-ground infrastructure for delivery / distribution. As noted in one of the articles above, WFP is still trying to find $100M to fight this crisis. WV has been in Niger since 1973, we have roughly 23,000 sponsored children there and our work affects many times that number. You can learn more about the actual people of Niger here.

Also, in the article about the slow response (which frankly is frustrating to those of us in the aid "industry" who have been talking about it since late last year), the following organizations are mentioned as being on the ground in Niger:

CARE
Oxfam
Save The Children
Tearfund

Based on some cursory knowledge of our operations and those of other NGO's in Niger, I would estimate that the size of World Vision's and CARE's operations are similar, with Oxfam, STC, and Tearfund all being smaller in scope / scale. WFP of course is massive in these scenarios, but then they are a governmental org. In general, I've found that those organizations that are larger and longer-tenured prove to be more effective (but that's not always the case - just a rough guide).

Situations like these are largely impersonal and on the far side of the planet from most people who have access to online news articles. Here's a little bit about a couple of the actual kids being affected by this crisis.

Despite warning signs for many months, relief efforts are slow.

This is both completely true and completely infuriating. Both the UN programs and NGO's have been trying to make news of this for half a year now. Niger already has an annual "hunger season" which we had warning signs would be much worse this year. But then it actually hits and its finally deemed news-worthy, and the news always has the addendum of what a poor job everyone's doing to respond to it. WV was only able to eek out a paltry $1M in a food aid grant just a few weeks ago, and WFP is still essentially begging for funds from the UN. Its not the responding organization's fault that the developed world hit an economic crisis and tightened up its collective purse strings. And its certainly not the fault of the people closest to the edge of survival, who are now being pushed over, en mass.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:52 AM on August 2, 2010 [7 favorites]


This is completely wrong. Jobs are created by a demand for employment. This demand is a factor of population and economic activity. There is not a finite number of jobs in the world. I mean, there are 300 million Americans where there used to be about 20 million Native Americans. Are 280 million of them unemployed? No.

Really..there is an infinite number of jobs available in the world that will lead to prosperity? I'm responding in the context of the comment I italicized. I am not an economist so if you want to point me to links that substantiate your assertion that there is not a finite number of jobs in the world and that jobs are created by a demand for employment (when has there ever NOT been a demand for employment?) then I would be happy to read up on this.
posted by spicynuts at 8:24 AM on August 2, 2010


18 children.

I'm trying to work out what your point is, unless of course, it was a short way of saying that you were a underinformed over opinionated prick.

In which case, I congratulate you on your brevity.

The African poor are not to blame for famine or global warming. They are the victims, the first to suffer.
posted by quarsan at 8:33 AM on August 2, 2010


The notion of 'jobs' is not terrifically relevant in a discussion of living in the Sahel.
posted by stonepharisee at 8:57 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm trying to work out what your point is, unless of course, it was a short way of saying that you were a underinformed over opinionated prick.

Children do not ask to be conceived and born. This is the decision of parents. Fathering 18 children you cannot afford and cannot feed is part of the problem.
posted by three blind mice at 9:24 AM on August 2, 2010


Famine is an outgrowth of a system strained to the breaking point. I am not blaming the African poor for their suffering just as I do not blame "fashion choices" for sexual assault, rocket88.

The reality is that developed countries have tried to include birth control in their aid packages to the developing world, but the Vatican's continued unreasonable insistence on uncontrolled breeding means they do so at their own peril. At this stage in the game, the planet is straining to contain an ever-burgeoning human population and unless this is reined in, people will suffer--and die--for lack of resources such as nutrition and clean water.
posted by kinnakeet at 9:55 AM on August 2, 2010


Fathering 18 children you cannot afford and cannot feed is part of the problem.

Again, since you seem to have overlooked yeloson's comment above, poor farming families raising large numbers of children has long been understood by social scientists to be a reasonably rational response to the demands of agricultural labor, high child mortality rates and lack of government support for the elderly, among other factors.
posted by mediareport at 9:58 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Simplistic, ignorant nonsense.

Niger does not suffer from overpopulation and kinship is regarded differently than in the West. As someone who has lived in Africa, worked in rural development and been in areas suffering from famine, I would expect the 18 children to refer to the number of children he felt a responsibility to care for.

The problem is food security, often to do with distribution, and minor changes can seriously affect people living on the edge. The article, and others, show that the farmers, such as Mr Garba have done everything in their power to prepare and cope with the situation.

For you to turn round and blame him for the problem because, on no evidence, that his reproductive behaviour is responsible.

Let me explain a couple of things. An African life is as valuable as anyone else's. An African parent grieves as much as anyone else over a child's death. I've met parents who went without food to feed their kids, others who have decided which child to feed when there wasn't enough to go round.

This is a horrifying and heartbreaking situation. To blame the parents for having too many kids, is not only breathtakingly insensitive, it also shows a real ignorance about the lives of the poor and why they do the things they do.

Anyone can type a smart arse remark, God knows I do it often enough, but, in all seriousness, this isn't the time and place for that. This is the time to try to learn a bit about why these things happen.
posted by quarsan at 10:04 AM on August 2, 2010 [14 favorites]


Overpopulation is a red herring. The real culprits are endemic poverty and prolonged drought. As the Guardian article notes:

The paradox of this year's worsening food shortage is the presence of plentiful quantities of food in many markets throughout the country. "There is a relatively good flow of food into the markets in Niger, yet prices remain extremely high," said Ferrera. "Since 2008 there has been a lot of speculation and tension in the markets. There has been good food production in neighbouring countries, yet prices are abnormally high."

So poverty stricken, subsistence farmers, when faced with one of the prolonged droughts that plague the area, have no means to feed their families. There is food available, but no means to buy it. Saying "if only their families were smaller" is not only callous, it's besides the point: even if Mamen Garba had no children, he still would have limited-to-no means of obtaining food.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 10:16 AM on August 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


It is possible to care about human suffering (and even donate for short term relief) and at the same time worry about overpopulation.

Also don't forget that it's the corporations / global capitalism who like everything that cheapens human labor.
posted by vertriebskonzept at 10:21 AM on August 2, 2010


I like Bill Burr's take on overpopulation.
posted by WerewolvesRancheros at 10:39 AM on August 2, 2010


I've got a lot of friends suffering from the drought right now. I wish I could trust the aid donations. In a way, you should donate, but I wish there was a way to get the money there more directly (in my case, I just send a moneygram to my friends, who take it to the nomad family that I know).
posted by iamck at 10:53 AM on August 2, 2010


I would expect the 18 children to refer to the number of children he felt a responsibility to care for.

The number could also include people who, in the West, would not technically be considered "children," such as unmarried young adults who are (or would be, under ordinary circumstances) contributing to household income, but who are not accorded full adult status in their communities.

Also, even if Mr Garba did himself father all 18 children, why should we assume they were born into poverty? His millet harvest was reduced by nearly two-thirds from one season to the next. One of the other articles talks about pastoralists' herds being decimated. People who have been, comparatively, comfortably off, or at least getting by under normal circumstances can find themselves devastated in extraordinary ones.

Addressing family size is a generational strategy, involving economic development, education, and altering incentives with respect to household economic security and having children. Creating an enabling environment for smaller family sizes is a worthwhile goal, but blaming people for operating in accordance with the dictates of a different environment doesn't help anyone.
posted by EvaDestruction at 11:03 AM on August 2, 2010


Let's think about those 18 children, shall we? Mr Garba is in his 60s, no? So these could be grandchildren, great grandchildren, as well as minor children. They could be great nieces and nephews; their parents might have contracted HIV and been unable to care for their own children or have died. His 18 children might even include adoptees who he has sheltered out of a sense of community and extended family ties. People like WebMonkey, here, are simply ignorant of how other societies are organized. You might as well say, If the guy's hungry, why doesn't he go and get a sandwich at Starbucks, that's what I do.
posted by jokeefe at 11:37 AM on August 2, 2010


[A few comments removed. More nuance, less bold tag, please.]
posted by cortex at 11:50 AM on August 2, 2010


The relevant parts from Abiezer's link:

As these numbers show; Africa is suffering from poverty. But this is not a result of overpopulation, which is what neo-Malthusians would (have) argued. Here it will rather be argued that overpopulation in Africa is not the cause of its underdevelopment, it is rather a consequence of it. To understand the real causes for underdevelopment Bandarage argues that we need to look towards ' ...an analysis of the unequal integration of regions, social classes, races, and men and women into the expanding global capitalist economy.'

Due to poverty, families often feel the need to have many children, as they can help around the home, and give the parents a sense of security for when they grow old. Since children have a clear economic value - larger families, and hence population growth, can easily be argued to be caused by poverty. There are, however, those who argue that large families are due to gender inequality and that women would prefer to have few children if the could choose. But poverty and gender inequality in connected, and history has shown that social conditions (eg. economic security) compatible with low fertility is needed in order to get men and women to accept family planning programs and the use of contraceptives. But until such a situation occur it is clear that for low-income families, an additional child is not of much a cost, instead of being a liability is becomes an economic asset. It is hence rational for families to want more children in order to try to escape poverty.

...

So if overpopulaion is not a cause of underdevelopment and environmental degradation, what is? A valid criticism of the neo-Malthusianism (idea) is that the real problem does not concern how many people there are, but how many resources they consume. And that in this way it is the West that is 'overpopulated' because they are using more resources than the developing world, and Africa in particular.

Collins argues that the problem, especially with environmental degradation, is not as much population numbers but the amounts income and/or resource consumption that is of importance. And although Africa is experiencing rapid population growth, they are not nearly using as many resources as the West. In fact, in 1981 the developing world had 75 percent of the population, and only used 25 per cent of the world's resources, and for the West it was the other way around. These numbers makes Collins conclude that '...increasing population does not affect our stock of natural resources.'

Bandarage tests this out in terms of three types of consumption, namely that of food, transport and raw materials. Especially the first point, food consumption, is of interest. The fact that there is a food disparity is not only evident in that 20 percent of the world population do not have enough to eat or drink, but that 3.4 billion people in the South live mainly on a grain based diet which is sustainable, while the West, or 1.25 billion people live on a meat-based diet. This means that means the West consumes 40 percent of the world's total grain, and supports the argument that there is enough food to feed those who go hungry, and that the real issue is maldistribution and not overpopulation. Another interesting finding, which makes the neo-Malthusian argument of overpopulation leading to environmental degradations invalid, is that Africa with 6 percent of 12.1 [sic] percent of the global total population, only contributed 6 percent to total greenhouse gases, while North America which counts for 5.2 percent of the population releases 20 percent of greenhouse gases, for Europe the numbers are 14.9 and 31. This has led Bandarage to call for a redistribution in resources, where the west consumers [sic] less and Africa more.


I am not an economist, so I cannot vouch for the validity of these arguments: however they seem plausible to me, and I think they are undoubtedly relevant to the discussion at hand. Note: I have left out some references; if anyone is interested they are listed here.
posted by Anderson_Localized at 11:57 AM on August 2, 2010


boverty
posted by low affect at 12:16 PM on August 2, 2010


I am not an economist, so I cannot vouch for the validity of these arguments: however they seem plausible to me, and I think they are undoubtedly relevant to the discussion at hand.

To me they seem a fine example of someone going to great lengths of tortured rationalization to justify an allocation of blame for all the world's ills that accords with his instinctive sense of fair play. The West is certainly over-populated, and suffers less for it by having an economic system that's arguably better able to deal with it, and certainly better able to suck resources away from the rest of the world. Africa is certainly over-populated in places, and suffers all the more for it. To suggest that Niger in particular doesn't have a problem with overpopulation, as someone in this thread above has done, seems particularly wrong. It has a relatively low population density when measured by total area, but most of that area is desert and the population has increased greatly. I confess ignorance of the exact circumstances, but just looking at the fact that their population growth rate has recently been among the highest in the entire world, it seems almost certain that this is one large part of the explanation as to how they became as vulnerable to drought as they apparently are. It certainly can't be helping.

It's fine to say that people in poverty have rational incentives to make more babies, and that we should do more to help get them out of the resulting self-destructive cycle. I agree on both points. It's the tragedy of the commons, isn't it? People in the wealthy parts of the world have their own incentives of self-interest to continue wastefully spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, too. It's always hard to get people to stop doing what is in their individual best interest, even when it leads to their collective doom.

This means that means the West consumes 40 percent of the world's total grain, and supports the argument that there is enough food to feed those who go hungry, and that the real issue is maldistribution and not overpopulation.

There is food enough to feed everyone at present if the whole world goes vegetarian, sure. How likely that is to happen is left as an exercise for the eater. Whether it continues to be true in the future with climate change and continued population growth is anyone's guess, but I'm well convinced it's still true for now. It's also true that with something rather less dissimilar to the extant system of distribution we could feed that world population somewhat better if it were half as large. It's not an either/or choice, maldistribution or overpopulation: It's both, the one multiplied by the other.

It's not just food of course. The world faces plenty of problems, and virtually all of them get worse the more people you have, when holding other things (such as the whole global economic order) equal or at least within the realm of plausibility. It rather sickens me when people deny that overpopulation is a problem at all, seemingly because it's a problem that's hard to do anything about. On the other hand, those of you saying so are all quite right that it's not the problem to be worried about when it's already too late and people are starving to death.
posted by sfenders at 4:08 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'll bite.

First off, the drought is going to primarily affect the herders, the nomads. Not the people that live in the city. True nomads.

In terms of consumptive footprint, these people don't have one. Yes, they live in one of the most difficult areas in the world, but they also consume almost nothing. They don't have any possessions except for their tents and household items. They barely eat -- a typical "desert" family eats meat maybe once a week. And in the case that they do eat meat, it's a tiny morsel at that. The food that they do eat is rice and bread, usually cooked with powdered onions. There are no real vegetables or fruits, except for dry dates.

One of the biggest and most important products is milk. Life is particularly difficult in the dry season, because the animals don't have a lot of grasses. When the animals don't eat, they can't produce milk. The nomads suffer through the dry season and wait for the rains.

The people live a very precarious existence. Most of the kids that I know are sick all the time, and the young ones are severely malnourished. They're not dying, but they're on the edge. It's the slightest push that can send them over.

Last year there wasn't much rain. This year does not look much better. Add in the factor that the aid agencies, terrified for their staff, have retreated from the Northern parts of the country and are no longer working there (which the critic could chastise for the ineffectiveness anyways, the generally expat employee earning 3000 euros monthly salary).

(rainy season, dry season -- not exactly the same area, but very representative)

As per the overpopulation problem; it is a problem, but not in the desert. This is more of an urban problem. There is no overpopulation in the desert; if anything, people are deserting the desert for the city, forming new urban centers throughout the Sahel. Now there is certainly a habit of having large families, and it sometimes makes you shake your head when you meet individuals who complain about their relative wealth, yet are supporting 10 children -- yet trying to extrapolate this into a soundbite or fingerpointing is pretty ridiculous. We could choose lots of factors for this; the West, Islam, Christianity, charity, industrialization. Blaming the starving family seems like kind of a cheap shot.
posted by iamck at 4:46 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


As per the overpopulation problem; it is a problem, but not in the desert. This is more of an urban problem. There is no overpopulation in the desert; if anything, people are deserting the desert for the city, forming new urban centers throughout the Sahel.

Thank you for explaining a bit of that, as always there is more to the story than what makes the newspapers. The news story in question though is about a famine affecting "80% of the population" of the country, the great majority of whom would not be desert nomads. It does sound like their story is different.

I checked in on wikipedia and notice that it also says "With rapidly growing populations and the consequent competition for meager natural resources, lifestyles of agriculturalists and livestock herders have come increasingly into conflict." I've no idea how much of that is going on, the reference cited doesn't do much to support the claim that it's a big general problem, but I can't help but suspect that it's unlikely that nomadic livestock herders would be entirely unaffected by such rapid growth of the cities and thus their demand for food even if for them it's a only small part (or perhaps only a less immediate cause) of the present hardship.
posted by sfenders at 5:55 PM on August 2, 2010


It rather sickens me when people deny that overpopulation is a problem at all, seemingly because it's a problem that's hard to do anything about.
What sickens me is the framing of an issue of political economy as 'over-population' as if the growth in human population were somehow divorced from the history of industrialisation, globalisation and colonialism. You've written yourself, "The West is certainly over-populated, and suffers less for it by having an economic system that's arguably better able to deal with it, and certainly better able to suck resources away from the rest of the world." So you seem to believe there's a economic system in the West that is somehow not inextricably linked to that of the developing world, in this specific instance Africa.
Then you get it entirely arse-backwards with "people deny that overpopulation is a problem at all, seemingly because it's a problem that's hard to do anything about." Pointing the finger at a consequence of the global political economy - localised food and other resource shortages in later-developing regions - and framing it as merely a question of population is the cop-out, and of course looks a lot like apportioning blame to behaviours of the poor now conveniently shorn of any historical or economic context. At some point in history African people started shagging too much, apparently. Perhaps it was an alignment of sun-spots increasing the global supply of mojo?
It's the easiest and most simple-minded thing in the world to suggest that having less people in those places where the resource inequities of our global economy bite would somehow solve the problem of starvation; this despite the fact that starvation/malnutrition was far more prevalent in more parts of the world when the global population was a fraction of what it is today. It flies in the face of everything we have seen about how economics - a human activity, not a force of Nature - works and what the course of global development has been.
There is of course some point at which a greatly increased total global population does become in absolute imbalance with desirable and sustainable use of available resources. Preventing that point being reached will not occur so long as idiots with disturbingly easy recourse to anti-human rhetoric refuse to look at the complex of global economic interlinkages that have been apparent to anyone with the eyes to see for centuries now and instead pop up at times of crisis to get bit of blaming the victim in.
posted by Abiezer at 11:42 PM on August 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


There is of course some point at which a greatly increased total global population does become in absolute imbalance with desirable and sustainable use of available resources.

You are really suggesting we haven't already passed that point? I suppose it's difficult to calculate, but sure looks well past it to me. The possibility of anything 'sustainable' in the long run on a global scale at this level of global population looks quite unlikely. Even if it were possible in theory, very difficult even without the possibility of climate change and the certainty of continued population growth making things worse. Never mind sustainable, when even 'working for a brief few years without people starving' seems remote.

this despite the fact that starvation/malnutrition was far more prevalent in more parts of the world when the global population was a fraction of what it is today.

You must surely be aware that the ability of global civilisation to produce food for people has improved a great deal since the start of the improvement in nutrition that you refer to. The whole 'green revolution' was in there, yes? It was a miracle. That improvement in the global balance seems to have ended for now. We still improve production, and can obviously do more, but it's getting more and more difficult to do it so quickly as to keep up.

I don't care "who is to blame" really, we all are. I mean, who is to blame for the economic system in the West? Me, personally? Sure, I guess so. I'm sure you could successfully argue that it is at least as much of a causal factor in the stereotypical African famine as is local overpopulation. I'm not trying to defend or exonerate the global economic system here. Globally, whatever the problems the world has are going to manifest first in places less developed, and *that* is primarily a function of the "global political economy". I've no problem with your calling rapid local population growth in some of those same places a consequence of that. I was making no claims whatsoever about its causes, which are many.

Not every local shortage of resources is the same though, and you can't always blame it all on your preferred demon either. Indeed if you were looking for the largest single immediate cause in this case, the drought would have to be it, no? In the pressing question of who deserves the blame, can't we just blame the weather like normal people do? It's got to be hard to think sensibly about anything larger when you're hung up on avoiding the appearance of blaming the victim.
posted by sfenders at 4:11 AM on August 3, 2010


You are really suggesting we haven't already passed that point?
Serious projections have world population growth peaking within the coming generation or a little longer with a maximum of around 9 billion, a number of people we could feed adequately now given ideal, equitable distribution but of course a challenge when the reality of the global divide is factored in. That plateauing also conceals a continued growth of population in some of the countries, like Niger, where access to adequate nutrition is already a problem - this presents us with a political and logistical problem of how to ensure such access, but need not be a contributing factor to any doomsday scenario even when the related issues of water supply, land use and fuels are taken into account.
You must surely be aware that the ability of global civilisation to produce food for people has improved a great deal since the start of the improvement in nutrition that you refer to...
It's precisely because I'm aware of that as yet another historical instance when Malthusianism has been shown to be wrong-headed that I find it so frustrating when it continues to be trotted out in all seriousness as of any relevance.
I'm certainly not interested in blaming you personally or consumers in the West as a group; I do want attention to be paid to the inequitable economic system we happen to be on the winning end of, rather than seeing the situation in the global south as the sole locus of any problems. I'm also not concerned about avoiding the 'appearance of blaming the victim' for some predetermined ideological reasons, but because the issues are really in no way a result of the fertility rates or reproductive choices of the global poor and anyone who suggests they might be is distracting attention from solutions to pressing problems of a life-and-death nature.
Each crisis will have proximate causes, such as the present drought, but again only a fool won't see that the consequences of a drought in some wealthy parts of the world (with very dense populations) are not the same as in others. Again, a host of local factors will be of immediate relevance but the long-term solutions will be found in the same place as the long-term causes, the much broader global context.
posted by Abiezer at 5:13 AM on August 3, 2010


the issues are really in no way a result of the fertility rates or reproductive choices of the global poor and anyone who suggests they might be is distracting attention from solutions to pressing problems of a life-and-death nature.

If I understand you correctly, this famine is "in no way" a result of the number of people in a country having increased by 40% over ten years in just the same way as it's "in no way" a result of the drought. You don't believe it should be allowed to happen despite the drought, and despite the insane population growth. Well I can't argue with that.

The population growth people can perhaps do something about, as was done with some success in Kenya for example, one of the few places with such extreme population growth that hasn't so far turned out all that badly relative to most. There has been some success in many places besides. The list of places where it has instead turned out badly is of course long. There can be no doubt that rapid population growth and high population density relative to resources are correlated with trouble and strife. That's not to say they inevitably cause it, but there is certainly a relationship there.

You are telling me all the efforts to distribute and encourage the use of contraceptives, all the sex education, family planning, all the efforts to help women control their fertility, insofar as they're part of the attempt to encourage the transition to lower fertility rates are just a total waste of time? I don't get that.
posted by sfenders at 6:46 AM on August 3, 2010


Well, obviously you don't understand me quite correctly if you interpret "[e]ach crisis will have proximate causes, such as the present drought" in the way you have. And I emphasised that the underlying issues are not the result of fertility rates and reproductive choices, rather those latter are shaped by the former.
Your last paragraph is pulled out of thin air as I've told you nothing of the sort; what I have said is that the instant resort to overpopulation as an causative explanation for famine and food insecurity that stands in isolation from a political and economic nexus is a wrong-headed simplification that obscures the true problem and so is unhelpful at a charitable best.
posted by Abiezer at 7:16 AM on August 3, 2010


And I emphasised that the underlying issues are not the result of fertility rates and reproductive choices, rather those latter are shaped by the former.

Yes, that is the point of our disagreement, going back to my first comment on the subject. Rapid population growth is both a result and a cause of poverty and destitution. There is no reason to think it can be only one or the other. Addressing it specifically can help to whatever degree the effort is successful, as the efforts of the UN and various governments attest. Certainly it is far from the only kind of intervention that can help, yes it would be wrong to ignore the many related social, political, and economic problems.

It is something much like a vicious circle. Seems to me you respond to a wrong-headed simplification that points to one part of the circle by pointing in a similar way to another part.
posted by sfenders at 8:14 AM on August 3, 2010


No, you're conflating two different levels of causation that aren't part of the same imagined circle - even the 'comprehensive model' in your linked paper is framed in narrow terms and with a temporal focus that elides the underlying causes. It's also an entirely different order of issues to those we were discussing in earlier posts (your 'global civilisation' and belief concerning worldwide population levels).
posted by Abiezer at 3:53 PM on August 3, 2010


No, you're conflating two different levels of causation that aren't part of the same imagined circle - even the 'comprehensive model' in your linked paper is framed in narrow terms and with a temporal focus that elides the underlying causes.

Right, well at least unlike the one you linked to, it explains fairly well what it's talking about, and has proved useful to subsequent researchers.

It does not follow from stating that poverty (or other things) can contribute to rapid population growth that "overpopulation is not a cause of underdevelopment and environmental degradation", as was argued in the thing you linked to. It does not follow from the fact that the forces leading to rapid population growth are more varied, more dependent on cultural and religious values and traditions, more bound up in contentious issues relating to reproductive rights that poverty leading to increased population growth is somehow more fundamental than rapid population growth leading to environmental degradation, political conflict, starvation. If anything the former causal connection is only more obscure and complicated. And simply shouting "Malthusian!" doesn't strike me as particularly helpful either. Malthus was wrong about a lot of things. He thought that population would inevitably grow faster than food supply. When talking about a particular region where population did actually grow much faster than food production, anyone pointing out that fact is not automatically wrong by association.

Anyway I will try again to discern your argument. You are saying that the true problem is the some aspect or other of the resource inequities of our global economy; and that this problem directly contributes to poverty in those places where the resources thus distributed are inadequate, while it does not contribute as directly to the excessive population growth in some of those same places. That is the difference, yes? The 'two levels of causation' are then just those causes that are internal to that PEDA computer model, and those that come from outside it or are part of its initial conditions. As for how exactly it's the 'global economy' that's to blame, that's still a mystery to me although slightly less of one if you want to go back a long way into history. Initial conditions, then. Whatever initially caused the "vicious circle", we've got some going now. In any case, you cannot just replace the global economic system all at once with a better one, fixing everything without trying to address the local problems.

It's also an entirely different order of issues to those we were discussing in earlier posts (your 'global civilisation' and belief concerning worldwide population levels).

Indeed it is. The regional effects of local extremes of population growth and poverty are one thing, the question of the potential future global size of what we're inequitably dividing up is quite another. Although they're related in the obvious way, confusing the two leads to much error. Whether or not we're beyond the level of global population that's going to be possible to sustain in the long run, we're certainly not yet so far beyond it that it makes any difference at all as to what needs doing in Niger.
posted by sfenders at 8:00 PM on August 3, 2010


That paper I posted way back was the first thing that came to hand to respond to the lazy and unhelpful resort to mentions of family size and birth control. It's not the the most brilliant piece of writing but it references to several better sources. Or perhaps you thought the couple of curt comments way back up thread where just short-hand versions of the Max Planck Institute model. Do me a favour.

It does not follow from the fact that the forces leading to rapid population growth are more varied, more dependent on cultural and religious values and traditions, more bound up in contentious issues relating to reproductive rights that poverty leading to increased population growth is somehow more fundamental than rapid population growth leading to environmental degradation, political conflict, starvation. If anything the former causal connection is only more obscure and complicated.

It's only obscure if you narrow your focus to the point where a demographic phenomenon widely apparent in later-developing nations is seen only in terms of its particular manifestation in one specific locale, where of course the various peculiarities of the context will affect its course. Unless you seriously intend to raise cultural and religious values and the rest to the same level as the unfolding of globalisation over the past three centuries or so.

Anyway I will try again to discern your argument...As for how exactly it's the 'global economy' that's to blame, that's still a mystery to me although slightly less of one if you want to go back a long way into history.

You hardly have to go that far back in history to look at the colonial and post-colonial history of Niger or the ongoing inequities of the exploitation of the country's uranium resources described in the link in my first comment. How that links to thee global economy ought to be reasonably easy for you to spot.
posted by Abiezer at 12:41 AM on August 4, 2010


How that links to thee global economy ought to be reasonably easy for you to spot.

If the worst thing its relationship with the rest of the world is doing at present to oppress a nation is providing a market for its mineral exports, I have to say that doesn't strike me as all that likely to be the primary underlying cause of its problems. That the benefits from mining aren't distributed equitably does suggest some potential to improve things, though that is hardly limited to poor countries. It's not as if the profits from extracting oil from the gulf of mexico or the tar sands of alberta are shared equally among the people. Places that are better managing the wealth that comes from extracting their natural resources don't depend on the global economy changing in order to do it. They do depend on more competent and less corrupt local government. How to achieve that is way beyond anything I understand.
posted by sfenders at 4:32 AM on August 4, 2010


... and then I see this in the news:
"The production-sharing agreement with CNPC allows us, if we manage it well, to guarantee better returns for our country," he said in a statement on national television late on Monday.
Hope it works out as planned.
posted by sfenders at 4:42 AM on August 4, 2010


I have to say that doesn't strike me as all that likely to be the primary underlying cause of its problems.
My contention is that it's primarily forced integration into the global economy and the particular path to modernity that ensued under colonialism that broke the traditional patterns of the Nigerien economy (confess to not being an expert on the region but reading around thanks to our argument that seems like a fair assertion - it appears their were various schemes to introduce plantation agriculture, European ploughing in marginal Sahel regions and so forth). This is the underlying cause of the later cycles of instability that do include the population boom, but it's because I see the causal chain in these terms that I don't concede that boom is in itself the main problem, even if it quite clearly is directly impacting the dynamic of the recent and current crises. To me that's not just a rhetorical position or some aversion to pointing the finger at behaviours of the poor if they truly were the root of the problem, it's that those genuinely aren't that root and suggestions that they might be are unhelpful (which is not to say that, for example, family planning advice as part of a crisis response is unwarranted). The population growth in Niger did not suddenly occur out of the blue due to some outbreak of irrationality among local people.
And as regards the colonial legacy - this also speaks to your '[p]laces that are better managing the wealth that comes from extracting their natural resources don't depend on the global economy changing in order to do it' and 'more competent and less corrupt local government' - we have in that Pambazuka report:
Since the days of flag independence, the Niger’s Diori Hamani and his political party, the Parti Progressiste Nigérien (PPP), indirectly handpicked by France, ruled the country aided by various covert and overt interventions beginning in 1963. Thanks to a secretive defence agreement, French soldiers based in Niamey collaborated with Hamani to obliterate and exile the opposition, such as Union Nigerienne Democratique. Hamani ran unopposed in 1965 and 1970, but made the fatal error of requesting the removal of French troops in the early 1970s. France duly removed the troops. Not surprisingly, thereafter a military coup brought Colonel Seyni Kountche to power. In 1987 Kountche was killed and succeeded by Colonel Ali Saibou.

Fast-forward to the Niger’s electoral authoritarianism under dictator Tandja Mamadou. Currently, the Niger’s 12,000 armed forces are guided by 15 French military advisors, with Nigerien personnel largely trained, armed and financed by France, protecting five critical defence zones – namely geostrategic routes and mines. The Niger’s two key mines are controlled by Areva, the world’s leading nuclear entity, controlled by the Elysée via the company’s majority shareholder, France’s state-owned CEA.
At minimum that suggests that the nature of government in post-colonial Niger has been heavily influenced by an external power's interest in its resources. That in turn only reinforces my belief that the ultimate solutions lie in the realms of political economy.
posted by Abiezer at 5:11 AM on August 4, 2010


My contention is that it's primarily forced integration into the global economy and the particular path to modernity that ensued under colonialism that broke the traditional patterns of the Nigerien economy

I cannot disagree at all, but that appears to have started in the 19th Century in what became Niger, and a couple centuries earlier elsewhere in the region. Whatever traditional patterns dominated before then, and after the various other conflicts with and impositions by previous empires from ancient Rome to Islamic caliphates, they have been for the most part either long gone or overshadowed by these more modern ways of life since well before 1963. That's not to say it's irrelevant, history does matter and traditional ways of life do continue in more than one place, but somehow undoing it all is not an option now.

What the French, or anyone, can do about it now is not so clear. It does not seem likely to me that simply removing all foreign support for the present governments would make anything better, but if you want to propose that it or some other concrete action would do so, by all means.
posted by sfenders at 6:15 AM on August 4, 2010


Not so long before 1963 if evidence from the grand colonial schemes of the 1920s and '30s in neighbouring Mali are anything to go by - these were still impacting development there into the late 20th century. To me that fits the classic pattern of post-colonial development problems, though can't gain access to any detailed studies of Niger; either way, I think you're greatly mistaken if you believe this is all a question of some dim and distant past (random example of a similar view).
The question of what precise political action to take is of course enormous, but I'm hardly alone in seeing the key to global poverty eradication in at minimum a political-economic realignment of the relationship between north and south. I see no place in such a debate for perspectives that see the causes of African poverty as overpopulation.
posted by Abiezer at 6:59 AM on August 4, 2010


Yeah, I didn't mean to imply that it was a dim and distant past, just that it was nonetheless past. The present does also include, as Stern there points out, such things as artificial barriers to trade which do not help.

I see no place in such a debate for perspectives that see the causes of African poverty as overpopulation.

Speaking of similar or at least distantly related views, part of the reason I persisted here is that on trying to track down some references to Bandarage from your previous link, all I found was a gigantic load of bullshit (not from her) claiming that efforts to promote birth control or family planning are just a shallow cover story for the forced imposition of mass sterilization with the goal of racial purity or some such thing, and that the only reason some countries in Africa and around the world suffer in poverty is a gigantic ongoing conspiracy of established economic interests to keep them poor so they don't use up all the oil. There was even one claim in response to real or imagined nonsense from "neo-Malthusians" about population growth that the solution is perfectly obvious and easy: Bring peace and prosperity to everyone, and then overpopulation is no longer a problem anywhere. Of course the only reason this hasn't happened, according to that one earnest writer of a rather long and serious-looking attempt at analysis, is because it isn't in the strategic geopolitical interest of the United States Government and the other evil capitalists. So there's plenty of idiocy on both sides of that "debate". Yes, it's yet another aspect of the ongoing legacy of the recent colonialist past.
posted by sfenders at 8:18 AM on August 4, 2010


Right, well in case anyone else was curious about Asoka Bandarage, who seems to be about the most widely-known writer around on the dangers of population control gone wrong (and I'm sure it can and has sometimes been done so badly that it's done more harm than good), I did eventually manage to find a small bit of her writing. Aside from attacking neo-Malthusians, whoever they are, here is what she proposes as to what we should be doing:
a fundamental transformation of consciousness, from the excessively individualistic and mechanistic approach to an ethical, ecological and democratic approach to life that honours the interdependence and unity of planetary life.
And here is a Marxist who advocates another approach.

It is all quite fascinating. A Marxist dispute with radical feminism over what the real solution should be: A world-wide psycho-social transformation to partnership and compassion, or some kind of more traditional Marxist revolution. United in their opposition to the Malthusian straw man who apparently believes that population stabilisation is the only thing that matters.
Research shows that for family planning to be voluntary, economic security of the population and women’s access to material resources, education and healthcare must be available.
Those things too are badly needed in most of the places where fertility rates and population growth is highest. That family planning and efforts toward population control can go badly wrong is not a reason not to do any of it, it's a reason to make sure it's done right.

It's true as Bandarage writes that "population control by itself does not lead to environmental sustainability". For one thing, population control in practice means trying to reduce the growth rate to something less likely to be quickly catastrophic, not to zero. It doesn't mean "the alleviation of poverty and conflict". It means a chance to avoid, delay, or at least lessen the chances of worse poverty and conflict that you're otherwise headed for. Perhaps by enough to buy some little extra time for investment in agriculture, infrastructure, education, and economic development.
neo-Malthusians attribute major environmental problems – depletion of the ozone layer, greenhouse gases, acid rain, pollution, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, topsoil, desertification – to increased population pressure. They call for population stabilisation as the urgent solution.
I have never heard of anyone who attributes even the one most widely-discussed problem among those, greenhouse gases, solely or even primarily to population growth. Anyone thinking of population control as the primary means to address global warming can only be thinking of reducing the world population by a factor of ten, as only some reduction of that order could possibly be effective. And yes, I know some people are thinking of exactly that, for other reasons, but they don't have a whole lot of currency.

On the other hand it is no doubt important to incorporate global population in planning and forecasting, in developing scenarios about how greenhouse gas emissions will evolve over decades, particularly if you're planning for greater prosperity for everyone.

If it's acid rain from one source or another, the ozone layer, some particular pollution problem, then odds are very good that global population growth, let alone rapid population growth in the poorest parts of the world is not relevant. I mean come on, the ozone layer? It's pretty clear how to solve that one and it's got nothing at all to do with the size of the world population. Who exactly are these neo-Malthusian characters? Do they really profess to believe these things? In respect to the other environmental problems listed and many besides, well it's more complicated. If it happens to be topsoil depletion, deforestation, or pollution in a particular place that is in the middle of an episode of rapid population growth, then population control may be of more immediate concern.
Widening economic inequality, not overpopulation, is the critical issue. The 20 per cent of the world’s population living in the highest-income countries account for 86 per cent of total private consumption, whereas the poorest 20 per cent account for 1.3 per cent of the same. Clearly, the rich put more pressure on the environment than the poor.
Population growth in the highest-income countries is of more direct concern to me personally than is whatever goes on elsewhere, since I happen to live in one of them. Despite the population here still growing naturally, plus immigration, the government still tries to encourage more people to contribute to the increase. It's madness, that. Then again it's also one of the lowest population density parts of the world, Canada. Yet it's pretty damn crowded with people in the more hospitable parts. All the good farm land is either being farmed or destroyed by suburban housing developments. Anyway, it's not just 'the South' that's growing, it's almost everywhere but Japan and parts of Europe. I think the average naive neo-Malthusian environmentalist would join us in agreeing that continued growth in America is on the whole doing more damage to the world than is all the population growth in Africa. That doesn't seem controversial.

In much the same way as population growth in the poorest countries in the world should not be your most pressing concern when talking about global warming, whatever is going on in the wealthy industrialized nations should not be your first concern when talking about what's happening to the poorest 20 percent. We had a great big financial crisis that left millions newly unemployed and in poverty. Did it make any difference to the poorest 20 countries in the world? I honestly don't know, but I doubt it did much. Whatever happens way over here it's just not going to change profoundly enough to make a difference there, unless perhaps things go extremely badly or extremely well in some way that nobody can foresee... such as a few billion people waking up one morning and deciding to join the Marxist/eco-feminist revolution.
posted by sfenders at 7:50 PM on August 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I apologize for making most of my comments here in ignorance of the details of how population growth contributed in a large way to problems in Niger specifically. If you want to find out, I'd start with this from 2008.

As I speculated above, agriculture expanding into formerly pastoral lands has indeed been huge in recent decades. Cultivated area went from 5094 km^2 in 1989 to 7820 km^2 in 2004.

Besides displacing some of the people that had used them formerly, those newly-cultivated lands are less suited to agriculture, being less resilient in drought and more vulnerable to soil erosion.

Dependence on food imports in Niger has increased, taking up an additional 5% of GDP over ten years from 1998 to 2008.

That makes its people all the more vulnerable to disruptions such as we will see if for broadly similar reasons global food production does not keep up with demand, if climate change for another factor leads to less food available for export, or more directly when there are market shocks from neighbouring countries more closely linked by trade.

Malthusian catastrophe was not judged by that linked pdf to be the primary cause of the 2005 crisis in Niger; at that point at least grain output per capita was still holding up, though less consistently than it had.

Many other complicated problems played more direct roles in that episode, such as "the entitlement failures of several socio-economic groups, the failures of domestic and regional market, and policy failures in the field of food security, health financing, and international aid."

Of the three policy implications given, the first was that more attention, not less, needs to be paid to population growth.
posted by sfenders at 9:54 AM on August 5, 2010


Who exactly are these neo-Malthusian characters?
Here you go. Amyarta Sen had some wise and balanced things to say on the subject too (and knocks down various of the arguments of a couple of prominent Neo-Malthusians such as Ehrlich, hence the link) while also cautioning against complacency on population growth in terms of potential environmental impact.
I've got a metric ass-tonne of things to say about "whatever is going on in the wealthy industrialized nations should not be your first concern when talking about what's happening to the poorest 20 percent" as well, but it's a bit late here. Can get back to it later if you're interested.
posted by Abiezer at 2:46 PM on August 5, 2010


Amyarta Sen had some wise and balanced things to say

Thanks, that one is interesting, if a bit dated. If it was 1994 I might agree almost completely. The largest part of his argument that Ehrlich and that crowd were wrong seems to rest on the then-fact that world market food prices had been falling consistently for years. But for the most part convincing on what sort of approach can actually work to control population growth. Coming from India (so I gather) it seems strange to me that he doesn't mention the role of the "green revolution" in unexpectedly proving Malthus at least temporarily wrong once again. But it does seem a whole lot more sensible on the subject than everything else you've linked to.

One claim, then, that needs examination is that the world is facing an imminent crisis, one so urgent that development is just too slow a process to deal with it.

The whole world, I don't know, it seems a close call for various reasons not examined there and too complicated and off-topic to go into here.

In Niger, the crisis is certainly imminent if not already underway, the situation looks from afar to be thoroughly horrifying, and I can't think of anything that's likely to be able to deal with it.
posted by sfenders at 6:10 PM on August 5, 2010


Sen's work is hardly dated; one of reasons he won his Nobel was that he "challenge[d] the common view that a shortage of food is the most important (sometimes the only) explanation for famine." That pattern fits with the current crisis in Niger, where there is sufficient supply of food in the markets but high prices put it out of reach of the poor - prices heavily impacted by things "going on in the wealthy industrialized nations".
In the short term, the most rapid response would be to give money to those who need it now so they can buy food. Longer term a development strategy that embodies Sen's notion of entitlement can be pursued, which sees people as bearers of rights rather than as components of a 'population problem.'
posted by Abiezer at 3:56 AM on August 6, 2010


there is sufficient supply of food in the markets

There could be, I don't know. That's not what it says there, though. Whatever food there is, it's badly distributed and the regional markets aren't working very well. As was the case in 2005.

You're probably right if you mean to suggest that increased integration into international markets is the way to go for countries that are inevitably going to be increasingly dependent on food imports. I suppose it is the only way. If so and if they succeed, it does seem likely that developments in the global markets (as opposed to regional ones that I'm pretty sure are still much more important now) will be more important to Niger than I had guessed, and more than they are at present. Hopefully it's not so distant a prospect as I imagine, and hopefully those global markets will fare better than they recently have.

I'm sure much of Sen's work is very much relevant and important in current affairs, including that on the many causes of famine. Just not the small part you specifically pointed to. Not only is the economic argument from food prices that there's no world-wide failure of food production to keep up with demand not valid today, but the very same logic supports the opposite conclusion from the last ten years of data.

World population size projections have also changed for the worse since he wrote that, as have the prospects for continued rapid global economic growth. Estimates for the effects of climate change have gotten worse, the rate of growth in crop yields has slowed, the outlook for oil and fertilizer prices is much worse. The state of ocean fisheries has become ever worse, un-sustainable water use in many places has become to look like more of a problem as it's been better understood, the finite supply of many economic minerals looks a lot more likely now than they did then to soon start imposing constraints on economic growth. Biofuels have started eating up a lot of food crops.

In India, birth rate has not declined so rapidly as was forecast then, leaving it still unclear exactly how long it might take to reach sustainable levels by the means they've so far tried, but at minimum it takes a whole lot of time. In the UK and US, fertility rates have started to increase a bit, we'll see where that goes.

The optimistic assessments from the final years of the previous century, of how well things could go if everything went right, did not come to pass. I do not like the odds that more recent ones will manage to become reality. Neither, from the tone there and the range of caveats and risks, does the FAO seem all that confident that it will happen, and their job seems to include being as optimistic as possible so as to maximize the chances that we'll collectively make the massive effort that is the only chance.
posted by sfenders at 8:59 AM on August 6, 2010


I wrote "population size projections have also changed for the worse since he wrote that". Sorry, that's probably wrong. The UN publication that everyone uses and that I was thinking of hasn't actually changed its estimate much at all for total population size. It went down a bit over the years, then back up, but not in any significant way considering the range of uncertainty.

Of course a world shortage of food would likely throw that estimate of 9 billion people way off, in one direction or the other.
posted by sfenders at 5:05 PM on August 6, 2010


Also from the Guardian: "There has been good food production in neighbouring countries, yet prices are abnormally high."

Looking it up, I see that Nigeria has been relying increasingly on food imports for more than a decade. The continued efforts to grow production there over the decades, though sometimes apparently misguided, have succeeded in increasing their food production greatly. Not fast enough to keep up with internal demand, let alone export more to their neighbours. So the level of influence on the price of things like millet exported to Niger by the price of substitutable imports in Nigeria is probably high and rising. Nigeria gets a whole lot of wheat from the USA, for example.

Reflecting on the global situation, I wonder how close the recent jump in world grains production is to exhausting short-term prospects for further rapid growth. For one example you have the EU eliminating in 2008 its requirement to "set aside" 10% of arable land. Not that it's fully explained by it, but it may be no mere coincidence that there was about a 10% rise in wheat and coarse grains production there in 2008-09 after it'd been mostly flat-to-declining for the previous 8 years. How many other things boosted production but can't be repeated to do it again, as demand continues to grow? The next round of global food price rises may already have started, as global consumption once again exceeds production, and when it does start it could be that much harder to end.
posted by sfenders at 7:17 AM on August 8, 2010


Niger: Food Crisis in the Sahel - Real Problem, False Solutions
...

The disorder of the world food crisis in 2008 did not become hazy, and this new peak comes to remind us that, in the Sahel, the crisis results from an endemic problem. This is a problem that, as the thrust of recurrent fever testifies, is more a question of structure than conjuncture, that these are the failings of agricultural policies that impose their own tough realities, and that the recommended solutions are not different from those pushed in the 1980s with the establishing of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) which sounded the death knell of Africa's agricultural policies.

The reduced investment imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank had then destroyed the base of an agriculture geared towards food sovereignty. Industrial cultures were promoted which washed the soil (leading to greater soil erosion, the use of pesticides and chemical fertiliser) and disrupted the balance of the systems of production behind subsistence and the generation of complementary revenues on the strength of access to local markets. From this point it was a question of food security, no matter where stocks came from. This was the period in which food aid poured in. Africa was to produce no longer, with African stomachs wagered on agricultural surpluses from Europe, the US and elsewhere. As a result, since 1980 sub-Saharan Africa has been the only region of the world where average per capita food production has continued to decline over the last 40 years...

African agriculture has suffered a series of difficulties which, over 30 years, have left it vulnerable to the smallest of changes on both the international market and climatically. Agricultural policies applied by states, under donors' pressure, have in effect turned their back on policies which, formerly, assured technical assistance to producers, backed up by a price-stabilisation mechanism and subsidies for commodities.

The fragility of this sector has been reinforced by an all-out liberalisation and the opening of markets to imported products, something which has practically strangled a scarcely competitive African agriculture. Today African markets are crumbling under the weight of Asian and European labels and so on, save in rare pockets of resistance and alternatives where the 'local consumer' is promoted. In this way, in a few decades, agricultural practices, in both urban and rural environments, have changed...

A year ago, Djibo Bagna - president of the Peasant Association of Niger, agro-breeder of his state and who became president of ROPPA (Réseau des organisations de producteurs et de paysans d'Afrique de l'Ouest) - outlined the terms of a crisis already known by the 'peasants' sense'. He said:

'Previously, we would work for three months and be able to eat throughout the year. A field of 100 hectares would produce 300 bundles of millet. Now, with the same area, it's hard to get 40 bundles, because the soil is worn away and the rain is less reliable. Two, three months after a harvest, the food is used up. People are forced to look into other ways of making a living. The problem is that today, such income is not enough as all the prices have gone up. Two years ago, a 100kg sack of maize would be around 10,000 CFA. Today, it costs around 22,000 CFA. It's unbearable!

'Our areas have come to resemble the food crises which followed the drought of the 1970s. And it hasn't stopped since. In 2005 and 2007, for example, millet completely dried up. Before, our governments supported agriculture: agronomists worked with farmers, livestock vaccination was free... But since structural adjustment, our governments have gone away from agriculture. Of course, when this sector involves 85 per cent of the population, this has consequences: lower production, a rural exodus, growing slums, with everything that that implies like poverty, idleness and delinquency...

'Today, in the smallest village, people eat bread, milk and coffee... This wasn't part of our customs; we used to eat maize-based dough, sorghum and millet. But when you can't live anymore from your field and you're reliant on others (neighbours, food aid), you eat what you're given...
posted by Abiezer at 3:45 AM on August 11, 2010


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