Editorial: A much different population issue looms

by Emily Buckley
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An increasing number of demographers believe the central global population issue is in the process of shifting from worries about too many people to concerns about a marked slowing in rate of growth. For an industry like grain-based foods, these possibilities, often couched in terms of warnings about "sub-replacement fertility," are of exceptional importance to understanding the future. After all, grain-based foods is an industry whose market is more closely related to population and, thus, consumer numbers than any other industry.

While population trends are often viewed as differing between developed and developing countries, the latest studies point to a considerable divergence even among the developed nations. America, for instance, is one of the few developed nations that continues to enjoy net gains in population. Not so incidentally, that is quite important to its domestic flour milling industry, which has enjoyed some stability and even gains in market size as population increases countered recent setbacks in per capita consumption.

The U.S. rate of gain, from the current base of 290 million, accounts for 2.7 million new consumers every year. Contrast this with Europe, where only a single country, Albania, has a birth rate assuring replacement of the present population. The rest of Europe has extremely low birth rates, averaging 1.2 children per woman, compared with slightly more than 2.1 in the United States. Hardly anything is more startling than the projection that continuation of present fertility rates in Germany would reduce that country’s population from 81 million to fewer than 40 million by the end of the 21st century and Italy’s from 57 million to fewer than 20 million.

In relating population to consumption, it’s essential to understand the main factors affecting the birth rate. The expansion of the number of working women is often cited as a principal determinant of demand for grain-based foods. Often unstated in these analyses is how women working have impacted the birth rate. Most demographers say that a two-parent-working family is not conducive to having more than two children and that aiming for two offspring often results in the actual birth rate falling toward 1.5 or lower.

According to the United Nations Population Fund, areas like Europe "have settled into a pattern of continued sub-replacement fertility." Some observers warn, "There is, as yet, no real awareness in Europe that we are on the threshold of population collapse." And while America’s openness to immigration avoids this circumstance, equally monumental changes are occurring in developing countries where concerns once focused almost entirely on unbridled population expansion. Fast population expansion was once seen as absorbing all likely growth in production of wheat and other grains. A change in that prospect to slower growth, as is now forecast, points to different supply-demand fundamentals.

Of course, sub-Sahara Africa continues to experience rapid population expansion that points to a doubling before the mid-point of this century. Some of the poorest nations, according to the U.N. Population Fund, will even triple. But in East Asia, as well as Mexico and Brazil, a so-called "demographic window" has opened, the U.N. Population Fund claims. This "window" provides the moment when numbers in the workforce relatively increase, which translates into immediate economic growth. The U.N. warns that this "window" opens only once, and that it quickly closes unless supportive steps are taken. One step would be successful liberalization in the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization.

From 1960 to 2000, world population doubled, from 3 billion to the current total above 6 billion. Significantly, consumption of wheat and other grains posted nearly parallel gains, meaning that per capita changes were zeroed out. Instead of doubling again in the next half century, as was once forecast, the latest projection is for a rise to between 9 billion and 10 billion by 2050. And from that point on, a decline will occur. For grain-based foods, the implications center on building demand rather than relying on growth in population.