The person who tips the world population over seven billion may be born this year. The world food price index hit a record high last month, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Bad harvests in Russia and Australia, combined with rising oil prices, have begun to cause shortages, export bans and even riots. Does starvation loom?
No. Never has the world looked less likely to starve, or our grandchildren more likely to feed well. Never has famine been less widespread. Never has the estimated future peak of world population been lower.
It is true that the world population may pass seven billion some time in the next twelve months, but the rate of growth is decelerating. World population is now growing at just over 1% a year, down from roughly 2% in the 1960s. The actual number of people added to the world population each year has been dropping for more than 20 years.
This deceleration took demographers by surprise. As recently as 1980 many were still forecasting that the current century would see 15 billion people and rising. Only in 2002 did the United Nations realise that its models were wrong to assume that birth rates would not drop below 2 children per woman in many countries. Now the UN estimates that the population will most probably peak at 9.2 billion in about 2075 before starting a slow decline. Population quadrupled in the twentieth century; it will not even double in this.
Everywhere, the fall in the birth rate is dramatic. Countries like Iran and Sri Lanka now have total fertility rates below two children per woman. Bangladesh is now down to 2.7 from 6.8 in 1955. Nigeria's birth rate has halved. These `demographic transitions' are proving as predictable as they are mysterious. They seem to happen because women stop fearing their babies will die, and because they move to cities, get educated, get access to birth control and get richer. In other words, the causes are benign; coercion, of the kind so many `experts' have long urged, is neither necessary nor helpful.