The challenges of population growth and decline

Where the world’s population will grow over the next few decades is as important as the estimate that there will be 9.7 billion people on earth by 2050

An increase in the world’s population by a third in the next 35 years is a challenge, but that has to be put in the context where the global population has increased by two thirds in the last 35 years.  The increase in population is not expected to be evenly spread throughout the world. Africa’s population is due to more than double by 2050 to 2.5 billion people, with Nigeria overtaking the USA as the world’s third largest country.

The Asian population is expected to increase by 20% by 2050 to 5.3 billion people, with 30% growth in India and a 2% drop in the Chinese population. North and South American populations are also expected to increase by a little more than 20% to 430 million and 780 million respectively.

Europe’s unique challenge

There is one continent that stands out from the rest – Europe. The next 35 years are expected to see an unprecedented decline in population. The current European population is 740 million, but the UN expects it to fall by 4% over the next 35 years to 705 million. The number of Eastern Europeans (including Poland, Czech Republic and European Russia) may fall by 14% to 250 million, with a decline in the number of Southern Europeans too. In contrast, the number of Northern Europeans (including Scandinavia and the UK) is expected to rise by 15% to 120 million, while strong growth in France should keep the Western European population (which also includes Germany and Benelux) stable.

A falling population may ease the pressure on resources, including land, but it creates other issues, primarily the fact that it makes market growth more difficult. In this environment farmers need to get consumers in their home markets to buy more, increase the value of their products or export more if their businesses are to grow. The first of these aims is perhaps the most difficult. The European market is mature, with consumption per head of agricultural products falling, apart for some non-food uses such as energy. Adding value can be done, but it often takes a lot of investment. For European farmers the most promising option is exporting more to the world’s growing markets.

In key European agricultural countries, the falling population means that the amount of farmland available to feed the nation’s population is increasing, freeing up land to produce exports. So in 2050, there might be the equivalent of 1.7 hectares of farmland per person, up 12% on the figure today. The Polish figure is expected to increase by 16.5% to 0.44ha/person, while there should 0.22ha/person in Germany, 8% more than now. This contrasts with an expected drop of 54% in the Nigerian farmland per person to 0.18ha/person and a 40% drop in the farmland per person in Egypt to only 0.02ha/person.

The challenge for farmers around the world is to produce more from the same amount of land by increasing yields and protecting crops from failure. In many parts of the world that extra food will feed the population where it is produced, but increasingly Europe’s food will need to be eaten by people many thousands of kilometres away.

Population facts

  • Population growth is at half the rate it was in the 1980s¹
  • There are an extra 80 million people in the world every year, by 2050 annual growth is expected to fall to an extra 50 million people¹
  • India is set to overtake China as the largest population by 2025¹
  • Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050¹
  • One in nine of the world’s people or 800 million suffer from hunger²
  • The number of hungry people has fallen by 216 million in the last 25 years, when the hunger rate was one in five²
  • Agricultural production will have to increase by 50% to feed the world²

Sources: ¹UN Population Division projections. ²UN FAO

World Population Day Graph 3
Expected % change in population 2015 to 2050
World Population Day Graph 1
World Population Day Graph 3
Population Day Gif 1
Population Day Gif 2