This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

Rethinking the Millennium Development Goals

Delegates from all over the world have been in New York City the past week working with the United Nations to sort out the revisions to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In my book, I have complained for some time that the MDGs seemed to ignore the fact that the world's population growth is expected to continue to grow for the next several decades, reaching at least nine billion and perhaps ten billion. Indeed, several of the MDGs explicitly focus on lowering death rates, without really considering the consequences of that. Yes, we all want lower death rates, but that means more people alive and we have to plan for that. A blog in today's New York Times deals with the tricky sustainablability issue that is part and parcel of the MDGs:
Over the last several decades, sustainable human development has been conceived largely as the outcome of balanced work o nthree “pillars” — economic and social development and environmental protection. The authors, building on arguments that have been brewing for awhile, say that these concepts are instead nested one inside the next, not separate free-standing realms. Here’s how one author put it in a statement released today:
“As the global population increases towards nine billion people sustainable development should be seen as an economy serving society within Earth’s life support system, not as three pillars,” says co-author Dr. Priya Shyamsundar from the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics, Nepal.
The bottom line in each and every year is, however, the question of whether or not we can feed these people. And that inevitably touches the question of genetically modified foods, aka genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There is a lot of resistance to this in the rich countries, as I have noted before, but the reality is that we are well fed in the modern world only because of our ability to modify the environment and modify the seeds that we plant in those modified environments. This is a perspective that is, of course, shared by others, including a lengthy opinion piece today in Reuters.
Why be so concerned? On the plus side, GMOs may solve a key problem and enable global growth. They may solve the Malthusian conundrum, and prevent what people have been fearing for centuries — namely that the earth cannot support more than a certain number of humans consuming what they consume. Still, GMOs are widely distrusted, even hated.
The animus toward GMOs is widely shared, and yet, the prevalence of GMOs has been part of the massive increase in agricultural production over the last few decades. Yes, that point in not without controversy. Critics of the biotechnological advancements in agriculture claim that decades of use have not increased yields and instead have weakened the organic food chain, eliminated crop varieties and actually decreased the resilience of the food chain worldwide by reducing natural diversity.
Still, it’s undeniable that as the population has exploded in the last hundred years, so has our food supply. That is especially true in the last 20 years, which have seen the sharpest rise in acres planted with genetically-modified seeds. In 1992, there were about 5 billion on the planet; today that number is in excess of 7 billion and climbing. Yet far from there being food shortages, much of the world is in surplus. Not everyone has enough food, but it’s not for lack of supply, but because of distribution. Potable water is a far greater issue.
Keep in mind that the same scientific perspective, arising from the Enlightenment over the past 200-300 years, is why we have learned to control death and thus unleashed the massive population growth on the planet. We cannot simply embrace science for the purpose of controlling death, but not for controlling hunger.

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