When we launched the “Food for 9 Billion” project last fall with stories about agricultural research, famine and the politics of food prices, some listeners and viewers protested that we were missing the point – that the real problem was population growth. 

In January, we ran a pair of stories exploring that thesis. “Too many mouths?” aired on American Public Media’s Marketplace, and “Turning the population tide” aired on PBS NewsHour. After witnessing the social and environmental impact of population growth in the Philippines, then observing the success of a modest program providing reproductive health services to poor fishing families, reporter Sam Eaton concluded that “maybe solving the world’s food problem isn’t just about solving the world’s food problem. It’s also about giving women the tools they want, so they can make the decisions they want, here in the world’s poorest places.”

That struck a chord with Kathleen Mogelgaard, a consultant with the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In a blog post today titled, “Population Projections Are Not Destiny,” she argues that population growth is “frequently framed as an inevitable force, a foregone conclusion,” when in fact there is plenty we can do to slow it down. She cites Eaton’s report for NewsHour as a rare example of a mass media story that takes that point seriously.

Mogelgaard says there has been much discussion about ways to increase the food supply in light of population growth and tightening resource constraints, but little about what can be done on the demand side. She points out that the U.N.’s projections for the global population in 2050 range from 8.1 billion to 10.6 billion. If we can bend the number toward the lower end, she suggests, we can make the job of feeding everyone much easier on ourselves and on the planet’s natural systems. She points to a recent study from Ethiopia by the Futures Group and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill that concludes that “a low fertility scenario has the potential to fully compensate for the impacts of climate change on food consumption.”

The Wilson Center first blogged about “Food for 9 Billion” in February, not long after Eaton’s stories came out. In today’s post, Mogelgaard lauds the project for “making clear connections … between population issues and the most pressing challenges of our day.”

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Jon Miller

Jonathan Miller is executive director of Homelands Productions, a journalism cooperative specializing in public radio features and documentaries. As a freelance journalist, he has reported from Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe and the U.S. for NPR, BBC, CBC, American Public Media's Marketplace, Monitor Radio, VOA, Radio Netherlands and Radio Deutsche Welle. He also has written for The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, Parents, American Way, The Christian Science Monitor and many other publications. For 13 years, he lived and worked in the Philippines and Peru. 

Jon is currently serving as executive producer of "Food for 9 Billion," a collaborative project of Homelands Productions, the Center for Investigative Reporting, American Public Media's Marketplace, PRI's The World, and PBS NewsHour. He was executive producer of Homelands' award-winning "WORKING" project profiling workers in the global economy (2007-09) and the "Worlds of Difference" series about the responses of traditional societies to rapid cultural change (2002-05).