Does "Overpopulation" cause hunger?

With kind permission from Peter Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (or as it is also known), chapter 3 of World Hunger: 12 Myths, 2nd Edition, by Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset, with Luis Esparza (fully revised and updated, Grove/Atlantic and Food First Books, Oct. 1998) has been reproduced and posted here. Due to the length of the chapter, it has been split into sub pages on this site.

Our second question can now be restated as: Do too many people already cause hunger? If that were the case, then reducing population density might indeed alleviate hunger. But for one factor to cause another, the two must consistently occur together. Population density and hunger do not.

Hunger is not caused by too many people sharing the land. In the Central America and Caribbean region, for example, Trinidad and Tobago show the lowest percentage of stunted children under five and Guatemala the highest (almost twelve times greater); yet Trinidad and Tobago's cropland per person-a key indicator of human population density-is less than half that of Guatemala's.15 Costa Rica, with only half of Honduras' cropped acres per person, boasts a life expectancy-one indicator of nutrition-eleven years longer than that of Honduras and close to that of northern countries.16

In Asia, South Korea has just under half the farmland per person found in Bangladesh, yet no one speaks of overcrowding causing hunger in South Korea.17

Surveying the globe, we in fact can find no direct correlation between population density and hunger. For every Bangladesh, a densely populated and hungry country, we find a Nigeria, Brazil, or Bolivia, where significant food resources per capita coexist with hunger.18 Or we find a country like the Netherlands, where very little land per person has not prevented it from eliminating hunger and becoming a large net exporter of food.19

But what about population growth? Is there not an obvious correlation between rapid population growth and hunger? Without doubt, most hungry people live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where populations have grown fastest in recent decades. This association of hunger and rapid population growth certainly suggests a relationship between the two. But what we want to probe is the nature of that link. Does rapid population growth cause hunger, or do they occur together because they are both consequences of similar social realities?

In 1989 Cornell University sociologists Frederick Buttel and Laura Raynolds published a careful study of population growth, food consumption, and other variables in ninety-three third world countries.20 Their statistical analysis found no evidence that rapid population growth causes hunger. What they did find was that the populations of poorer countries, and those countries where the poorest 20 percent of the population earned a smaller percentage of a nation's total income, had less to eat. In other words, poverty and inequality cause hunger.

Buttel and Raynolds did not explicitly look for the causes of high population-growth rates. However, University of Michigan ecologist John Vandermeer conducted a follow-up study using 1994 data that explicitly asked that question.21 He found that inequality and poverty were the key factors driving rapid growth as well.

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