BOSTON — Planet Earth’s population reached 7 billion people Monday, according to the United Nations, posing new challenges to provide adequate food for all.
After taking about 250,000 years to reach the 1 billion mark in 1805, the world’s population has exploded in the past two centuries. The population reached 2 billion people in 1927 and then doubled to 4 billion just 47 years later in 1974.
Now only 12 years after the United Nations named Bosnian Adnan Nevic as number 6 billion on Oct. 12, 1999, the world has reached the 7 billion milestone.
“Our record population size can be viewed in many ways as a success for humanity: People are living longer, healthier lives,” said Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in a 2011 report on population growth.
“But not everyone has benefited from this achievement or the higher quality of life that this implies,” he wrote.
The world has seen game-changing technological innovations, yet the gaps between rich and poor are widening in almost every region. The significant decline in the number of children per mother in some developed countries contrasts starkly with the high fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa.
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Experts predict massive environmental destruction and natural resource deficits if nothing is done to create a more sustainable way of life.
“We have to consume in more sustainable ways, but also we have to produce in more sustainable ways,” said Michael Herrmann, an adviser on population and economics with the UNFPA. “Many countries already face water shortages, food shortages and energy shortages.”
The U.N. estimates that the world must increase food output by at least 17 percent — a huge challenge, Herrmann said — to be able to feed the world’s population by mid-century, when the 9 billionth person is expected to enter the world.
But the problem is not the overall amount of food produced. The problem is the question of food availability to those who need it most.
“With the current food production you could even feed 8 billion, maybe you could feed 9 billion,” he said. “The trouble is that a large share of the food we produce does not actually end up as food on our plates.”
A lot of raw produce, like maize and soybeans, is used as fodder for livestock and indirectly “ends up on our plate as a pork chop.” An increasingly large portion of food also is being used for bio-fuel production.
Add to that a lack of success in boosting agricultural output in many of the world’s poorest countries and about 1 billion people, or every seventh person, suffers from food insecurity and extreme poverty, according to the U.N.
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“A lot depends on investment in the agricultural sector in some of the poorest areas of the world, “ Hermann said.
In late September of this year, PepsiCo, Inc., the PepsiCo Foundation, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) and the United States Agency for International Development announced an initiative to tackle food and economic insecurity in Ethiopia by increasing the amount of chickpeas (garbanzo beans) harvested.
The partnership, called Enterprise EthioPEA, aims to use local crops in the country to meet nutritional needs. Part of the food will still serve the local Ethiopian and export market, and the rest will be committed to the WFP as nutrition supplements for other parts of the world.
Chickpea is a staple in the average Ethiopian’s diet and is a highly nutritious food, according to experts.
“With the ingenuity, power and reach of the private sector, we can make great strides in ending the malnutrition and hunger that is threatening the lives of millions,” Josette Sheeran, executive director of WFP, said in a statement.
Ethiopian Daniel Gad is a former AT&T senior executive in Seattle who returned to his home country in 2003 to invest in local food production. As the owner of Omega Farms, Gad teaches the locals participating in the initiative modern agriculture practices and manages the farm for his partners.
He said he considers Enterprise EthioPEA to be an important step in satisfying the world’s need for more nutritious food, and he hopes the partnership will inspire many more international donors to follow the example.
“The fact remains we’re not moving fast enough to keep up with the demand on food,” Gad said. “We’re not preparing ourselves to respond to food emergencies that we see cropping up all over the world.”
Herrmann agreed that innovative policies and investments are a much-needed tool in influencing population growth and said, “demography is not destiny.”
“We have to change the way we’re consuming and producing,” he said. “The world is reaching limits.”