15.2 Population Growth I: Children and World Hunger; Food and Energy

Population growth and chronic hunger are two serious global problems today. Many feel the problem is too many people.

Rapid population growth rates are a recent phenomenon. Just 8000 years ago, there were fewer humans on earth than now occupy New York and Tokyo. Today most population growth is in lesser developed countries while births in the industrialized countries are declining. The differential growth requires some explanation.

The average European or North American family can afford more children, but doesn't choose to have them. Yet in parts of Latin America. Asia, and Africa families seem unable to afford them, however they continue to have many children. First, we will compare attitudes toward family size in the two regions.



We see ourselves as making conscious choices to create our own family sizes. One subtle factor that influences our family size is the cultural norm about the proper and socially acceptable number of children. We are expected to care for them and educate them. If we expect to provide private schools, an Ivy League college, and graduate education--the costs can be enormous.

Other factors influence us also. Many young couples are faced with job mobility and all that entails. Young women increasingly have careers and as a result, postpone having children. Many couples simply want freedom from children and the prospect of 'being tied down.' Finally, many of us will be faced with another responsibility: caring for aging parents.

Magazine writers have tagged many of us as the 'sandwich generation,' caught between college expenses, funding retirement, and caring for elderly relatives a time when life should be getting a bit easier. Some demographers predict that as we have more families with few children, more of us will be caring for a sibling as well.



Why do some people choose to have many children? What is their viewpoint? Just because children are expensive in highly mobile, industrialized, urbanized, cash-based societies does not mean that they are seen as a similar liability in other societies.

Many argue that rural people in Third World have many children because they are economically useful. Village-level ethnographic studies conducted since the 1960s suggest that children do indeed offer a variety of material benefits for their parents. The remarks in this section speak specifically to rural India, but they do also apply elsewhere.

Now again remember, we as outsiders look at them and see increasing impoverishment with each new and larger generation. What do the people themselves see and believe? They see many children as a benefit--especially sons. Most advantages revolve around having extra labor to work on the family land. By having more sons, one or more can go off to the city to earn cash which can then be used by the family to purchase more land.

Small children, aged six to eight can tend livestock, gather wood, or care for younger siblings. By the age of fourteen, girls can prepare food, do handicrafts, household chores and other domestic activities. Children are cheap labor to do many tasks that require little experience or skill. In Java, a large family is more successful economically than a small one. In most parts of the world, children are an economic support to their elderly parents. In summary, children are perceived as more valuable and as less costly than in our own culture.



Leslie White has argued that there is more energy use per capita in complex societies than in foraging societies. It can be argued that increasing affluence accounts for more consumption than increasing population. Let us put these ideas is simpler terms.

People is developed countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United States use much more energy per capita. The numbers are quite dramatic. In 1990, an American citizen consumed 7,681 kg of oil equivalent energy per year. In contrast, the average Egyptian consumed 594 kg of oil equivalent energy per year. The differential is a ratio of approximately 13 to 1.

I am not citing these figures to impose guilt on you nor am I willing to give up my car or air conditioner to set a good example. All of this is just to illustrate that the good life has a cost. As a large, consumer-based society, we use resources from all over the Earth at a prodigious rate.



We take our agricultural productivity for granted. A single mechanized agricultural worker in the United States produces enough food to feed sixty to seventy people. This labor efficiency is achieved only with an enormous input of energy in fossil fuels and electricity. When you calculate the number of calories needed to produce one calorie of food energy, mechanized agriculture is actually less efficient than foraging or horticulture.

Look at it in a different way. North American rice grown with mechanization is 150 to 250 times more labor efficient than rice grown with just human labor. Maize grown in North America is roughly 130 times more labor efficient than maize grown in the tropics using horticultural methods without machines.

How is this efficiency achieved? It done by using fuels, fertilizers, pesticides, water, tractors and so forth. We are using using non-agricultural resources to replace labor. This makes land more productive; however, the additional materials have a cost. Consider this: in 1970, it took the energy equal to 80 gallons of gasoline to raise one acre of corn.

It takes more energy (measured in calories) to produce our food than we get back in edible foodstuffs. Then--in 1975, over 90% of the grains, legumes, and other vegetable protein produced by American farmers was fed to livestock. So what? In general terms, in that next step up the food chain livestock overall is only 10% efficient in converting that food into edible animal products. In summary, we use energy intensive methods to cultivate our crops and then feed most of it to livestock and get only a 10% return as edible animal products. We get away with it because of the spectacular productivity possible in this country.


It gets worse. Much of our food is processed. It is refined, canned, frozen, cut up, placed in containers--all processes and materials that take energy to produce. We buy almost all our food in commercial stores and restaurants where more energy is consumed in freezing, chilling, and cooking the food. "On the farm" energy use is only about 25% of the total energy consumed in our food system. The other 75% of the energy input is between the farm and our mouths.

When all of the energy input is figured in, it takes about nine calories of energy input in production, processing, distribution, and preparation to get one calorie into our mouths. You may ask, what can we do as individuals to be more efficient? Experts suggest more protein-rich vegetable foods and less beef. Use more fresh vegetables and fruit and use less canned or frozen foods. Mom had it correct when she said: waste not, want not!


We are a culture that takes pride in 'know how.' We are willing and anxious to share with others. Will our technology work in the Third World? It may not. Our intensive agriculture requires prodigious inputs of energy and considerable capital investment. While mechanized agriculture is labor efficient, it is energy consumptive. Ethnographic studies suggest that preindustrial food production systems are 50 to 200 more energy efficient than our own. What is the lesson? Solving food production problems in other parts of the world require solutions tailored to their ecology.

Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth century Islamic historian said this about the downfall of civilization: over-consumption in society was an inevitable cause of decline. The first cities in Mesopotamia are now a lunar landscape, a windswept desert caused by overuse of the land. Armed with hindsight, we can do it better this time.

..... CJ '99


McElroy, A. and Townsend, P. Medical Anthropology 3rd ed. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.

Peoples, J. and Bailey, G. Humanity 3rd ed. New York: West Publishing Company, 1998.

Wood, M Legacy The Search for Ancient Cultures New York: Sterling Publishing.

Company, 1994.