Can Population Control Shrink the Yield Gap? Developing Solutions for Developing Regions

A recent article by Andrew Jack in the Financial Times (the iconic pink-colored newspaper carried by all self-respecting business men on London tube trains each morning) reports that developing countries in Africa will be responsible for the greatest increases in population growth over the next 90 years, with the global population predicted to hit 10 billion by 2100. Given the number of dire predictions currently being bandied around regarding population increases, food demand and climate change it’s easy to become blasé and dismiss it as just another issue that will be solved by the next generation. After all, what difference can we possibly make to rural communities in developing countries?

Rises in per capita are predicted for developing countries over the next century and as Andrew Jack notes, increasing affluence results in improved healthcare, urbanisation and a decline in birth rates. Nonetheless, this pattern is not being currently being exhibited by regions in Africa and S. Asia, which are unable to improve per capita income as population increases overcome economic growth.

So how do we curtail the rise in population growth? Even in a developed country such as the USA, mentioning the politically-charged phrase “population control” often leads to an uncomfortable silence, images of an Orwellian constraint on family size (1 child good, 2 children bad?) or debate over the rights and wrongs of abortion. Yet simply providing access to contraception, considered to be an inherent human right by many women in the developed world, could conceivably (pardon the pun) improve future sustainability.

Reducing the number of children born in developing countries would improve female health and lessen the burden on economic and environmental resources placed by increasing population size. This would be a crucial step forwards in mitigating future food shortages, yet it does not solve the underlying problem. One of the major drivers behind population growth is parental reliance on support from the younger generation. As discussed in Jared Diamond’s excellent book “Guns, Germs and Steel“, higher birth rates potentially allow for a greater number of children to work on the land and improve societal stability. However, the promise of  future affluence is a major stimulant that causes young people to migrate from rural areas to urban regions that are already suffering from significant overcrowding.

A considerable yield gap exists between developing and developed countries, both in terms of animal and crop production. If productivity could be improved and the yield gap reduced, food security would improve in rural areas with positive effects on per capita income and infrastructure, and potential reductions in the number of inner-city migrants. Nonetheless, the major question remains unanswered – how to improve productivity?

If we use dairy farming as an example, a recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation noted a negative relationship between productivity and carbon footprint – as we move across the globe from developed to developing regions, productivity decreases and the carbon footprint per kg of milk increases (see graph). Carbon can also be considered a proxy for land, water and energy use, thus reduced productivity increases both resource use and environmental impact. The logical conclusion would therefore be to implement systems and management practices currently seen in N. America, Europe and Australasia in an attempt to educate farmers in S. Asia and Africa. However, sustainability cannot be improved by implementing a one-size-fits-all solution, but calls for a region-specific approach.

Identifying traits within indigenous and imported animal breeds and plant varieties that will make the best use of available resources allows development of production systems that match environmental, social and economic demands. Further implementation of continuous improvement and best management practices in developing countries is crucial in order to improve affluence, reduce population growth and mitigate environmental impact both now and in future. However, this is not a situation that can simply be solved by improving yield per acre, but requires a multifactorial approach coordinating population control, education, food security and human health and welfare. Providing contraception without a concurrent effort to improve agricultural productivity will fail in its prophylactic intent to control either population growth or world hunger.

3 thoughts on “Can Population Control Shrink the Yield Gap? Developing Solutions for Developing Regions

  1. Just food for thought ……..

    Anyone with a cursory knowledge of population dynamics will understand that when a population exceeds the carrying capacity of its enviornment, catastrophic things begin to happen. Perhaps the biggest societal issue to be addressed is, has society the where with all to discuss the only two mechanisms of human population contron – increasing the death rate, an/or decreasing the birth rate.

    Although in the 1950s and 60s it was in vogue to debate human overpopulation it appears that, lobally, society refuses to get into meaningful discussions. It’s also argueable (in ecological terms), that a decrease in human polulation to some “sustainable level,” might be the solution to many of the “problems” facing us today (from food security, to global warming).


  2. It’s a scary problem, this population thing. From the “Green Revolution” to modern intensive agricultural practices, we have facilitated unprecedented population growth almost everywhere, but it beats the alternative.
    Curiously, at least to me, growth slows in the most developed nations or even reverses, negative growth, in some. If everyone were to reach our state of development, would the world’s population just sort of gradually dwindle away? It gives one pause. Large families around here are rare nowadays.
    We just can’t divorce ourselves from the rest of nature, we still live by the same rules, or do we? We can reason, create, solve seemingly unsolvable problems. If we put our collective minds to the task, cooperate, there is nothing we can’t accomplish.
    I like Bovidiva’s assertion that higher production leads to less actual carbon footprint per unit of product. It only makes sense. Of course there’s always room for improvement, but I have no doubt improvement will continue.

    One thing, cows don’t burp or belch, so how is it they get the blame for producing so much greenhouse gas? 🙂 On our farm we compost much of the manure and have developed a good local market for it; $15 per cubic yard.


  3. Pingback: Enjoy Your Food This Holiday and Appreciate our Food System | Dragun Corporation: Environmental Blog

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