The Causes of Poverty (57): No, It’s Not Overpopulation

There is enough food, water and energy in the world to support a decent life for the whole of humanity, even if the numbers of humans continue to grow at their current rate. Poverty, hunger, drought and lack of energy are caused by an inefficient and unjust distribution. It’s not the size of humanity and the supposed pressure it puts on the earth’s resources that results in poverty and suffering for so many of us. Let’s have a closer look at water, food and energy.


The earth’s fresh water reserves are relatively small, and a lot is wasted on inefficient irrigation, inefficient home use and the production of animal food (the animals in turn are used for the production of meat consumed by people who already eat too much meat). More efficiency could help a lot, but there is also the vast reserve of salt water:

Desalination currently costs about $2 per thousand gallons, which in real units, is about $0.5 per thousand liters. It’s hard to get good recent data on water consumption, but it seems to have been 4000 cubic kilometers per year in 2003. Let’s guess it’s around 4500 cubic kilometers nowadays (about 70% of this is agricultural). It would cost about 2 trillion dollars to produce this water from desalination. (source)

Compare this to total military spending: $1.6 trillion in 2010. Eminently doable given the right priorities.


[I]t should be possible to produce yield increases that are large enough to meet some of the predictions of world food needs, even without having to devote more land to arable agriculture. (source)

There’s a huge margin for growth in food production:

Food production in Africa is vastly less than the region’s known potential, and that is why so many millions are going hungry there. African farmers still use almost no fertilizer; only 4 percent of cropland has been improved with irrigation; and most of the continent’s cropped area is not planted with seeds improved through scientific plant breeding, so cereal yields are only a fraction of what they could be. (source, source)

In fact, the arable land is underused even on a global level:

Most countries are only using a bare fraction of their available agricultural land. The United States, for example – one of the world’s top producers – is using only 5.5 percent of its available agricultural land. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, only 5.6 percent of the world’s arable and permanent cropland and permanent pasture is under irrigation. (source)

World agricultural production has grown 2.5 to 3 times over the last 50 years but the cultivated area grew only by 12%. So it’s not like we’re running out of land on our “tiny” planet. Africa has around 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land, about 60% of global total.

And then there’s waste: up to 40% of the world’s food ends up in the garbage bin, because of deficiencies in the food-chain infrastructure, in transportation and in storage. Farmers produce more than they can sell because they receive financial penalties from wholesalers when they can’t deliver fixed quantities throughout the year irrespective of climate conditions. Add to this excessive quality selection (shops throw away perfectly edible food because it’s not visually appealing, and apply overly zealous use-by dates) and consumer waste, and you have mountain ranges of wasted food that could be used to feed many more billions of people.

The enormously expensive and resource intensive production of meat could soon be a thing of the past. In vitro production of meat is becoming a real possibility. That will in turn reduce water usage, deforestation and other environmental catastrophes. Not to mention the consequences for the wellbeing of animals.



[W]e could replace our energy sources with solar panels, at current prices, while spending only a tiny bit more [on energy] than we currently do. (source)

More on overpopulation here. More posts in this series here.

5 thoughts on “The Causes of Poverty (57): No, It’s Not Overpopulation”

  1. Great information however be cautious when considering ‘schmeat’ as a solution. Currently it is not yet able to be grown without antibiotics and growth hormones. Having a cell biology background, I have worked extensively with stem cells and various other cell lines. It is rare indeed to get successful growth without media modification. Many times the media is serum based for successful growth and although there are many advances in non-serum based medias, they are not largely used. And until many of these problems are addressed by the powers that be, solutions will not be forthcoming. There are far too many invested in the destruction of earth and its people to see real change without true representation from the people. At this point, most people can see t the need for change however have no way of making those changes reality which causes guilt, frustration, and is a self defeating as it is intended as from there you get disease. And where else can you get that kind of pay out?


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