Population and food security in Africa: a win-win opportunity

By Jenna Dodson

Best estimates suggest nearly 300 million people in Africa are undernourished, and there is mounting evidence linking this food insecurity to rapid population growth 1–3. Recently, in “The impact of population growth and climate change on food security in Africa: looking ahead to 2050”, Hall et al. reaffirmed population growth to be the driving force behind food insecurity and undernourishment4. In all scenarios, 35 of the 44 modeled countries will be at high risk of undernourishment in 2050. Depending on the demographic future of these countries, this could range from 678-895 million people who will not consume enough food to meet daily requirements on a continual basis5. This is a threefold increase in the total number of people who are already undernourished. These are striking numbers that demand effective adaptation response.

Hall et al. discuss two possible solutions: the first, an increase in food production through ‘sustainable intensification’. African countries should apply environmentally sensitive techniques that will substantially increase their cereal yields to achieve yields closer to the global average. In addition to the difficulties associated with sustainable agricultural growth in highly populated areas6, the authors state that even if such a production increase were possible, it would not be a long-term solution given the demand driven by population growth.

The second proposed solution is an increase in food imports. If countries are unable to produce sufficient yields to feed their populations, then they can rely on the supply from exporting countries. Yet, food imports are already high, and the authors caution that increasing future imports may be too costly due to population growth, particularly for the poorest countries4.

These recommendations have obvious flaws. And in these flaws, we recover the very issue found to be the primary driver of the problem, population growth. The authors even note that future population estimates are likely conservative, in which case rates of undernourishment will be even higher. What is not noted is the potential for future food security to be improved by decreasing future demand for food. In neglecting to discuss solutions to slow population growth, Hall et al. missed an opportunity.

Contrary to popular belief, perpetual rapid population growth is not a certainty. Just like other socioeconomic factors, population growth can be influenced by policies. Policies that respect people’s right to make individual reproductive choices. Despite the common negative connotation of population policies, efforts to slow population growth work within existing societal context and seek to produce voluntary change. Africa’s population is projected to be 3.1 or 6.2 billion in 2100, depending on fertility rate5. The difference between these two alternatives is every woman freely choosing to have one less, or one more child. Policy decisions affect the accessibility of these choices and can have sizeable impacts, including improved food security, and much more.

Rapid population growth increases the demand for basic services, such as education, housing, and other necessities. Without increased resources, this demand can stretch public infrastructure beyond capacity, leaving populations and governments vulnerable to insecurity and instability7. By slowing population growth, these challenges become more manageable to address. Additionally, historical data show that fertility decline precedes and stimulates economic development8, and can simultaneously increase income per capita and lower carbon emissions9.  Through population policies, policy makers have the opportunity to transform Africa’s demographic future into something manageable, development-oriented, economically viable, and environmentally responsible.

There are two key policy actions. First, universal access to family planning services. Family planning programs have proven achievable even in the poorest settings, and the economic benefit to families has translated into societal enrichment8. Second, initiatives to delay marriage and childbearing. A population in which women begin having children at age 15 will have 25% more people after 60 years than a population in which women bear their first child at age 207. In addition to a lower risk of health complications, delayed marriage gives girls more time for personal development. Coupled with expanded access to education, more feasible with slower population growth, delayed marriage will allow women more opportunities for educational and economic advancement. The synergistic effects of these policies would be transformative, generating social and economic development in addition to reduced human pressures on limited environmental resources.

Lastly, it is important to address the role of countries outside Africa. To ensure universal access to family planning services, global initiatives and investment are required, including an increase in family planning funding from both developing and developed countries[1]. Regarding human pressures on limited resources, countries with high emissions and consumption must reduce these levels. Indeed, slowing population growth, or even population stabilization, could reduce emissions to a level necessary to avoid dangerous climate change10, and population policies should be part of a multi-faceted approach to this global problem.

There is much to be gained from slowing population growth and responsible population policies. These benefits include increased food security, feasibility for improvements in infrastructure, economic development, women’s empowerment, and reduced environmental impacts. Hall et al. missed an ideal opportunity to recommend population policies. We urge other scholars, as well as policy makers and the public, to break the cycle of neglect, and include population policies in their future discussions of sustainable societies.

[1] Only 1% of all overseas development assistance (ODA) is now allocated to family planning11. The total cost to satisfy the unmet need for family planning in the developing world is $9.4 billion per year, or an increase of $5.3 billion annually from current levels12.

Processing peanut harvest in Southern Senegal



  1. FAO, IFAD & WFP. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015. Meeting the 2015 international hunger targets: taking stock of uneven progress. (FAO, 2015).
  2. Moreland, S. & Smith, E. Modeling Climate Change, Food Security, and Population. MEASURE Evaluation (2012).
  3. Wiltshire, A., Kay, G., Gornall, J. & Betts, R. The impact of climate, CO2 and population on regional food and water resources in the 2050s. Sustainability 5, 2129–2151 (2013).
  4. Hall, C., Dawson, T. P., Macdiarmid, J. I., Matthews, R. B. & Smith, P. The impact of population growth and climate change on food security in Africa: looking ahead to 2050. Int. J. Agric. Sustain. 15, 124–135 (2017).
  5. UNDESA. World Population Prospects, the 2017 Revision. Population Division (2017).
  6. Headey, D. D. & Jayne, T. S. Adaptation to land constraints: Is Africa different? Food Policy 48, 18–33 (2014).
  7. Ezeh, A. Population’s part in mitigating climate change: A Nigerian response. Bull. At. Sci. 72, 189–191 (2016).
  8. Sullivan, J. O. & Martin, R. Role of Family Planning in the Climate Change Response. in 27th International Population Conference 1–20 (2017).
  9. Casey, G. & Galor, O. Is faster economic growth compatible with reductions in carbon emissions? The role of diminished population growth. Environ. Res. Lett. 12, (2017).
  10. O’Neill, B. C. et al. Global demographic trends and future carbon emissions. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 107, 17521–17526 (2010).
  11. Wexler, A., Kates, J. & Lief, E. Donor Government Assistance for Family Planning in 2014. (The Kaiser Family Foundation, 2014).
  12. Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health. By slowing population growth, family planning can help address food security and global climate change. (Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, 2015).


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