Population growth not the cause of world hunger: economist

Haroon Akram-Lodhi speaks about the causes of world hunger.  
Photo: Shannon VanRaes

For some the equation is simple — more people on the planet means more people go hungry.

Not for Haroon Akram-Lodhi. The economist and Trent University professor who specializes in the political economy of agrarian change in developing capitalist countries, says equating a growing population with global hunger is not only incorrect, but creates a false moral imperative for intensive industrialized agriculture.

“The argument that population growth is faster than growth of food supplies… is simply wrong,” Akram-Lodhi told attendees at a recent Menno Simons College lecture titled “Feeding the World: Is Hunger Inevitable?”

“The world, in terms of food production, has witnessed historically unprecedented increases in the amount that we produce,” he said, adding that according to United Nations World Food Program, the planet already produces enough food to feed more than 10 billion people.

Yet nearly a billion people — 870 million of the world’s seven billion inhabitants — live with chronic hunger.

“If we have record production, why do we have record hunger? And where do these record prices come from?” Akram-Lodhi asked.

For the author of Hungry For Change, the answer to this contradiction is found in factors driving increases in food prices, including the move to produce biofuels.

“What’s happened over the course of the last decade or so, is that the Europeans and the Americans have used subsidies to try and create a market for biofuels… it’s massively expanded,” Akram-Lodhi said, noting more than 30 per cent of the U.S. corn crop now goes to the production of biofuels.

“Grains that used to be used for food are now being used for fuel so that we can drive to the supermarket and buy our groceries,” he said. “And this very large expansion of biofuels has been a major driver increasing prices.”

Speculative influence

Akram-Lodhi said the move by speculators from stocks to commodities after the financial crisis of 2008 was also a major influence on food price levels and volatility.

“You’ve got a change from food traders dominating the market for financial assets in food… giving way to food speculators,” he said.

Many of the financial institutions directly tied to the global financial crisis actually benefited from increased commodity speculation, he noted.

“In 2012, by betting on movements in prices, Goldman Sachs (a large U.S. financial house)… reported a profit of $400 million, just from food price movements,” Akram-Lodhi said. “Over the course of the past five years, we’ve seen the real farm economy and food production become unhinged from the financialized farm economy.”

Akram-Lodhi noted that more people are eating meat than ever before, resulting in more grain going to feed animals rather than people.

In the U.S. and Canada, the average person consumes about 123 kilos of meat per year. And while countries like China see averages of about half that amount, those numbers are climbing as well. While not advocating vegetarianism, he said he tells his students that if they were to make one change in their lifestyle for the good of the planet, it would be to eat less meat.

“The ‘meatification’ of global diets is, in strictly economic terms, a really poor use of resources,” Akram-Lodhi said. “So biofuels, speculation, meatification; this over the course of the past six years has driven up these increases in global food prices, but it’s not population growth.”

‘Corporate food regime’

He described these changes as part of a “corporate food regime.”

“(I)t’s predicated on and requires the massive use of fossil fuels throughout industrialized agriculture; it’s a food regime which is dominated by global agri-food transnational corporations,” said Akram-Lodhi. “And these global agri-food transnational corporations are driven by financial market imperatives to pursue short-term profitability.”

He said the commodification of food contributes to scarcity, as do poor distribution networks and lacking infrastructure.

“Food retailers are the ones that really dominate this system,” Akram-Lodhi said, adding the emphasis has to be placed back on profitability for producers and the return of agricultural jobs.

While Akram-Lodhi acknowledges the complexity of world hunger, one of the first steps to addressing it is to debunk the myth that world hunger is caused by population growth.

“Many people worry about a world of 10 billion people — I don’t think a world of 10 billion is to be feared,” he said.

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.



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