World population and food supplies

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World population in 1992 stood at 5420 million, and is currently increasing by about one thousand million (one billion) every 10 years. UN world population projections made in 1992 estimate 6228 million in 2000 and 8472 million in 2025. The rate of increase is less than had previously been predicted, due to increased efforts at population control using family planning. Even so, these estimates indicate a greatly increasing demand for food. The highest population growth rates are in Asia, Africa and South America where scarcity of food is most prevalent.

While it is extremely difficult to assess the world's food supply and requirements, it is estimated that at present 10-15 per cent of the world's population are underfed, having insufficient food to provide even enough calories for a normally active life. In addition to these hungry millions, there are many more, possibly as many as 30 per cent of the total, whose calorie intake is adequate, but who suffer from malnutrition because their diet lacks various substances essential for health.

The food situation differs greatly in different areas. In Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand the consumption of food is, in general, fully adequate for daily needs, and health problems arise more from over-indulgence or improperly balanced diets than from any insufficiency of quantity. In Africa, South America and the Near East, however, food intake is precariously balanced with requirements, and often inadequate, while serious food shortages occur in parts of Asia.

In all communities, inadequate diet is closely connected with poverty. In such conditions infant mortality rates are usually high, partly the result of malnutrition. High infant mortality encourages high birth rates in compensation, and in some communities family planning is unlikely to reduce birth rates appreciably until there is a reasonable expectation that children will survive. Consequently, effective measures of population control require the raising of standards of nutrition, hygiene and health in the poorest populations. The problems of feeding the increasing world population, stabilizing its size and achieving a satisfactory balance between food supply and demand are therefore closely interrelated. It is not solely a matter of expanding food production but also of ensuring a more equitable distribution of wealth and a proper apportionment of food to bring all diets to adequate levels.

To what extent may we reasonably hope for greater supplies of human food from marine sources? Seventy-one per cent of the earth's surface is covered by seawater. Although production rates in the sea are generally less than on land, overall the organic production of the oceans cannot be very much less than that of the land surface. Yet only about 1 per cent of the total supply of human food comes directly from the sea, and only about 10 per cent of human consumption of animal protein derives from the sea either directly or indirectly via fishmeal fed to livestock. Fish is a high-protein food of excellent nutritive quality, in some respects better than meat, and any increase in fish supplies would be a valuable supplement to the world's sources of protein. Many fish are also rich in edible oils, and fish livers are an important source of vitamins A and D. Whales, molluscs and crustaceans are other marine groups which are useful foods, and might in some cases be more fully exploited, especially the cephalopods. It is also possible that food might be obtained from the sea by unconventional methods, such as direct harvesting of the marine plankton. We will briefly consider some of the ways in which the seas might make a greater contribution to the world's pressing need for more food.

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