How Population Growth Affects Hunger in the Developing World

More than 850 million people worldwide are classified as undernourished, many of whom suffer from chronic hunger (also known as food insecurity). Rapid population growth is intensifying food insecurity in parts of the developing world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where some countries’ populations are doubling and tripling every 30-50 years. Greater investments in voluntary family planning programs and supplies, including contraceptives, are urgently required to meet the needs of more than 200 million women worldwide who wish to delay or end their childbearing but do not have access to modern and effective contraceptive methods.

Population Growth and Hunger

Slowing population growth is essential in reducing the outbreak of famine and achieving food security. While poverty and natural disasters are the most common causes of food insecurity, rapid population growth overburdens already strained financial and natural resources. This, in turn, greatly impedes efforts to raise incomes and reduce food shortages, particularly in rural areas where food insecurity is mostly concentrated.

“The goal of achieving food security will be made more difficult if population growth rates cannot be reduced,” concluded a 2005 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It further noted that “the economic and environmental costs of augmenting per capita food production may well prove too great for countries whose populations grow faster than their economies, resulting in greater poverty and fewer resources to fight it.”

Rapid population growth and chronic hunger are particularly acute in developing countries. The number of chronically hungry people in the developing world increased by nearly 4 million per year in the mid- to late 1990s.

Africa has the highest number and proportion of countries facing food emergencies; the average number has almost tripled since the 1980s (see reverse). In sub-Saharan Africa, where the population growth rate is the highest of any major region in the world, one-third of the population is undernourished.

Africa’s food supply would need to quadruple by 2050 to meet people’s basic caloric needs, according to a 1996 FAO study, even under the lowest and most optimistic population projections.

Food Insecurity in Niger

Currently at 14 million people, Niger’s population is projected to nearly double to 26 million by 2025. Rapid population growth is greatly straining already fragile food supplies in the country, with 25 percent of the population facing chronic food shortages.

Niger has the highest fertility rates of any other country in the world – eight children per woman, on average. Only 4 percent of married women use a modern form of contraception, in part because access to these reproductive health supplies is extremely limited.

The Situation in Haiti

An estimated 40 percent of Haitian households face daily food insecurity; 25 percent of the population cannot afford the minimum 2,240 daily calories recommended by the World Health Organization.

With one of the world’s worst daily caloric deficits per inhabitant, the Haitian population suffers from widespread and chronic malnutrition. About 42 percent of children under age five are severely or moderately stunted in growth.

Haiti’s population of 8.5 million is projected to jump to 13 million by 2050. With little access to contraceptive supplies, Haitian women still give birth to an average of four children each.

A Closer Look at Ethiopia

“Rapid and unhindered” population growth is a significant factor in exacerbating food shortages in Ethiopia – the second most populated country in Africa – according to a 2003 report by the UN Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia. That year, 20 percent of the population was dependent on foreign-supplied food aid.

Of the country’s current 77 million people, an estimated 12 million Ethiopians are facing serious threats from food insecurity and famine. More than half of the country’s children under five years of age are stunted in growth and 47 percent are underweight.

With one of the highest birth rates in the world, Ethiopia’s population is projected to increase by 20 million in the next 10 years and double by 2045. 45 percent of the population now is under age 15. Each Ethiopian woman gives birth to an average of six children, and 36 percent of married couples that desire to use contraception to space or limit childbirths do not have access to contraceptives.

Depletion of Natural Resources

Population growth is putting unprecedented and increasing pressure on vital natural resources, including cropland and fresh water.

Dozens of countries already have reached alarmingly low levels of available cropland.Currently, 465 million people live in countries with less than .07 hectare of cropland per person – the minimum cropland capable of supplying a vegetarian diet for one person. The number of people living in such critically land-scarce countries – including Egypt, Bangladesh and Jordan – is projected to increase to as many as 740 million in 2025.

Currently, 750 million people live in countries experiencing either water-scarce or water-stressed conditions. By the year 2025, between 2.6 billion and 3.2 billion people could be living in these conditions . Water shortage is likely to grow especially acute in the Middle East and in much of Africa.


Voluntary family planning programs provide couples with the information and contraceptives needed to plan and space childbearing, thereby reducing rapid population growth. As a result, these reproductive health services are an essential tool in reducing hunger and famine in the developing world.