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It’s strange how, as you get older, you remember names and facts from many years ago but you can’t recall where you’ve just left your car keys.

The subject of global population came up recently, and suddenly the name ‘Malthus’ flashed past the failing optical nerves. Of course, it was in the 1790s that Thomas Malthus, an eminent cleric and economist – they liked to be both in those days – pointed out to the world that, as a country’s total food production increased, so would its population. So there would never be any sustained improvement in the standard of living.I don’t know what the world’s population was in the days of Malthus; nor did he, or anyone else for that matter. It must have been difficult when you were counting on your fingers. I’m exaggerating; they used their toes as well (lol). But what is certain is that the number today is considerably greater than in the days of Malthus.

It currently stands at 7.9 billion. Cultivation skills, together with the industrial revolution, increased food output substantially, counter-balanced by scientific and medical progress, plus increased fertility rates. Nevertheless, most of the world was able to stay on top of the existential challenge of ensuring that food supply matched what the people demanded. But I emphasise the word ‘most’, because there are many countries in the world that have experienced almost continuous food shortages of devastating proportions. And in one country – India – they have actually run out of the most valuable component in the food game – water. What is often overlooked is that the supply of water in the world is not a litre more or less than the amount that existed when Noah navigated his Ark through the turbulent waters of wherever. And in India all the water is in use from above or below the ground or inaccessible up in the rain clouds.


What’s clear is that, since the time of Malthus, the world’s population has grown at different rates, for different reasons in the various countries, with food availability existing in highly unequal proportions across the world; and again for different reasons. The fertility rate measures the average number of children that women of childbearing age give birth to in a given country. In 2019, the global fertility rate was 2.4 children per woman. That, surprisingly, is only half of what it was in 1950 (4.7). The fall in fertility rates has been greatest in economically developed countries. Three main factors have taken the credit: Fewer deaths in childhood, greater access to contraception, and more women getting an education and pursuing careers before – and sometimes instead of – having a family. The fertility rate of both the USA and UK in 2021 was 1.7. The population replacement rate, which is the fertility rate needed to maintain a society’s population size, is 2.1 children per woman.

South Korea has the lowest fertility rate globally at 0.9. I would have thought that rather worrying in terms of future availability of a working population. Perhaps they’re expecting the digital revolution to get machines to do all the work! China has a fertility rate of only 1.7, caused by its ‘one-child policy’ for about 30 years to 2021 when married couples were allowed to have up to three children. The flags must have been flying everywhere that day! Afghanistan’s fertility rate in the 1990s was around 8.0 and, until recently, down to 4.5 because the Taliban had been ousted, and women could receive an education and get jobs. What now, with the Taliban having resumed occupation?

The vast majority of the countries with the highest fertility rates are in Africa. Niger tops the list at 6.8 children per woman, followed by Somalia at 6.0, and the Democratic Republic of Congo at 5.8. Eswatini’s rate is 3. According to a paper published by the UN, Africa’s high rates can be attributed to low contraception use, early and universal marriage, early childbearing, and childbearing across much of a woman’s reproductive life span. That diplomatically or misleadingly excludes issues such as status of women, and men taking full responsibility for their progeny.  


And what about incomes in those countries? The picture is not good. The IMF and World Bank tables, in income per capita, show African countries dominating the bottom quarter of the 200 countries of the world. With a rising population-denominator figure, many have an enormous and ever-increasing challenge in food production and affordability. The Russian invasion of Ukraine will damage food availability and the poor of the world will suffer even more than before. Global Crazy – I mean Global Warming – is abruptly introducing extremity and unpredictability into the modern world; a huge threat to food production efficiency and reliability. Prevailing fertility rates, therefore, take on an ominous dimension. In so many African countries today, from the perspective of survival and well-being, the right boxes are not getting ticked.

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