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Demography is Destiny

We’re getting bigger

We’re getting bigger

by Marcus Roberts | November 14, 2018

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One of the (many) great movies that Pixar released about 10 years ago was WALL-E, a story of a futuristic Earth on which a robot is stuck, tidying up the mess left by humankind. We meet the remnants of humanity later on in the movie in a space ship. These future humans are sedentary and fat and comical. Humanity might no longer be in danger of dying of starvation on Earth in the early twenty-first century (by and large) but surely we’re not going to turn into the 300 pound rotundities depicted in WALL-E (and, a fortiori, into the bohemeths in Judge Dredd)? Surely?

Well, (here we go…) according to a recently released study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Industrial Ecology Programme, we as a species are trending towards the more robust end of the BMI scale. After studying the changes in the population of 186 countires between 1975 and 2014, a team of researchers at the University were able to measure the physiological changes in the world population. As a whole, we are getting older, heavier and taller. On average, people are 1.3 per cent taller, 6.2 per cent older and 14 per cent heavier!! This means each adult consumes 6.1 per cent more energy than they did in 1975. Back then, an average adult consumed 2465 kilocalories per day, in 2014, the average was 2615 kilocalories.

Human food consumption has increased by 129 per cent over the same period. Population growth accounts for 116 per cent of that increase, while the increased weight and height of each person accounted for 15 per cent of the increase. On the other hand, food consumption has also slightly dropped by two per cent due to the fact that we are ageing overall; the older you are the less food you need.

These overall changes mask major differences between countries. Some countries’ population grew in weight by six per cent, while others grew by 33 per cent. The average weight of a person in Saint Lucia increased by 20 kilograms (62 to 82) in the 40 year period studied. There is also a marked variance between the heaviest nation (Tonga at an average weight of 93 kgs) and the lightest (Vietnam with an average weight of 52). This means that Tongans require about 800 more kilocalories per day that the average Vietnamese.

This study is important and interesting and the authors make the point that increasing food consumption per person means that in the future we will need to feed more people with more food each. However, on a more positive note, what would be driving part of this increased food consumption is the decreasing rates of malnutrition and food insecurity around the world. There are fewer people facing starvation each year and this would increase the world’s average food consumption. While food wastage by individuals in the West and food wastage through war and political disputes in the global South is a real problem, if we need more food each because fewer of us are malnourished or starving, this is a good thing and something to celebrate. Before dealing with how to ensure food security in the future.

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