June 26, 2019 | By Jijun Wang

Population Growth and World Agriculture Production in the Context of Climate Change

Population Growth and Increasing Food Demand

In the last few decades, worldwide, countries have made huge progress in eradicating extreme hunger and achieving SDG2: zero hunger. Although about 821 million people globally are undernourished, mainly in low- and middle-income countries, it is important to highlight that the proportion of people suffering from hunger has fallen by half since the 1960s, given that the world population has more than doubled since 1960. Meanwhile, evidence suggests that the growth rates of global agricultural production have slowed in recent years due to a decreased growth rate of world demand for agricultural products, falling from an average 2.2 percent a year over the past 30 years to 1.5 percent a year for the next 30.

Yet, there is a growing concern over whether the world could produce enough food to feed the future population. According to the UN’s 2017 revision, the world population is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030 and 9.8 billion in 2050. Most of the growth is forecast to take place in low- and middle-income countries. If global population reaches 9.1 billion by 2050, based on FAO’s report, the world food production will need to rise by 70 percent, and food production in low- and middle-income countries will need to double. In the meantime, world agriculture confronts severe challenges from climate change, loss of farmland, the decline of rural population, etc.

Climate Change and Food Security

Climate change is one of the major threats to world agricultural production. It leads to increased temperatures, weather volatility, unpredictable rainfall, withered rivers, and thus negatively impacts agricultural irrigation systems. Also, due to climate change, the frequency and intensity of natural disasters increases. Extreme weather and natural disasters are costing farmers in low- and middle-income countries billions of dollar each year. Among various natural disasters, drought was one of the most damaging ones to agriculture.

Drought causes food and water shortage around the world. In 2018, countries, including Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, and Syria, all reported severe drought. In Somalia, about 6.7 million people—more than half of the population are affected by the prolonged drought. In Yemen, an estimation of 17 million people—equivalent to 60 percent of its total population are food insecure and rely on urgent humanitarian assistance. Beyond that, drought has huge economic impacts. For Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, drought is the costliest type of disaster, totalling $10.7 and $13 billion crop and livestock losses, respectively, between 2005 and 2015.

Moreover, climate change could increase the prices of major crops and thus harm the most vulnerable people—the world’s lowest-income population. Studies point out that food prices are expected to rise moderately in line with a moderate increase in temperature and rise more rapidly due to the increase in the level of climate change. The lowest-income people are those who already spend most of their income on food. An increase in food prices, especially an increase in the prices of major crops, means that they have to sacrifice additional income on food purchase to meet nutritional requirements.

Weather patterns under climate change could also impact the world’s lowest-income populations. For instance, in many Asian countries, a large portion of the rural population are smallholder farmers who rely on agriculture. Insufficient rainfall during planting seasons or prolonged winters will have catastrophic impacts on smallholder farmers’ household income, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and distress. For farmers who take a loan, this will cause them to be indebted.

Asia and Africa

It is hard to ignore the overlap between countries that are severely impacted by climate change and countries that have large population growth. Worldwide, Africa is epitomized as one of the most vulnerable continents to climate changes and Asia is the world region where agriculture was most affected by natural disasters such as floods and storms. Meanwhile, Africa and Asia's are forecasting large population growth in the future, given their large population bases and high fertility rates. More than half of the global population is living in Asia and one-quarter of the global population resides in Africa.

Low- and middle-income countries with large population growth in Asia and Africa have good reasons to worry about climate change. India has more than a billion people, a majority of whom depend on climate-sensitive sectors, such as agriculture, forestry, and fishing. South Sudan is one of the countries with the highest population growth rates in the world, and more than 90 percent of its population relies on farming, fishing, or raising livestock. Uganda is a country with 3.3 percent population growth rate and more than 69 percent its total population works in the agricultural sector. Moreover, for countries like Syria, climate change could aggravate already existing domestic conflicts. There is convincing evidence that temperature extremes and rainfall variability have contributed to civil war across Africa and particularly in East Africa.

Actions Needed

Global population accelerates the food demand and climate change adds another layer of uncertainty on food production. Low-income population in low- and middle-income countries, are the most vulnerable group facing the threat of food insecurity. To ensure adequate food to feed the future population, actions are needed. One approach to support agricultural development involves the application of technologies. For instance, technologies could improve the resilience of irrigation systems under drought. The Chicago Council's recent report, From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Food Future, details other actions that the US and international community can take, such as incentivizing private sector investment and supporting agricultural R&D. These and other targeted, purposeful steps towards food security will help provide nourishment for a growing population.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.