Population changes to affect food demand

by Morton Sosland
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New population estimates just issued by the United Nations hint of a dramatic slowing in the growth rate, especially in developing countries, from what had been previously forecast. Primarily as a result of a decline in the birth rate in countries such as Brazil, Egypt, India and Mexico, demographers have been moving to lop off hundreds of millions from population projections in the 21st century. It seems certain that the forecast that once struck fear in the minds of people concerned with overpopulation — that the global total would rise to 10 billion by the end of this century, from the current aggregate of 6.1 billion — is being revised downward.

For food producers and processors around the world, and especially for poultry and livestock, this sudden decrease in the birth rate, to around 2.1, or a little more than one child for each parent, has huge implications. In the case of some of the basic grains like rice and wheat, slowing in population growth often portends an equal reduction in the rate of expected consumption gains. In the case of livestock and meat, and also demand for coarse grains and feeds, the opposite may be the case. Declining populations often relate to improvements in living standards, to gains in the quality of the diet, with more emphasis on protein foods and less reliance on carbohydrates. Smaller families, which are the obvious result of these trends, increase economic independence, spurring a willingness to try new foods.

Forces driving this sudden and unexpected downward revision in the birth rate are many. Even a modest increase in the standard of living is seen as encouraging a reduction in family size. Women’s health organizations take some credit for educating women in developing countries on how they may exert control over their reproductive lives. Another important factor is the growing availability of television, which frequently shows programs of successful families without excessive numbers of children. Still another influence has been the increase in literacy among women in poor countries. At one time, estimates were that 50% to 60% of the women in these poor countries were illiterate. As more and more girls have gone to school, this is rapidly changing, and, looking to the future, one expert has pointed to the impact from more and more women of child-bearing age who have had some levels of education.

While it’s difficult to believe that this trend in smaller families will suddenly spread around the world, and quite a few demographers challenge whether this will happen, a consensus appears to be developing that this may very well be the case. Hardly anything has had a greater impact on the food preferences of people in the developed nations, such as North America and Europe, than the rising numbers of women in the work force. In the same way, the sudden preference of women for having fewer children than might have been wanted only a few years ago has the potential of effecting massive changes in food consumption.

Recent studies have warned of possible jolting of international meat markets by the demographic and economic changes occurring in China. The same across the entire developing world promises reverberations in meat and poultry, as well as feeding, like nothing ever before experienced. E-Archive #52803


Morton I. Sosland