Won’t feeding the world’s hungry only fuel the root problem of a growing population?

Is it so obvious that we should feed the world’s hungry?

Many have been saying that aid to countries with high rates of population growth is immoral and foolish. Why? Because preventing death from hunger today will lead to a larger number of births tomorrow. This will in turn lead to even more people starving the day after tomorrow. At the present rate, in about 40 years the world will have twice as many people to feed, house, clothe, and educate—and the rate of growth of many countries is almost twice the world average.

The Christian may feel trapped between what appears to be the logic of this position and the command of God to feed the hungry. He has read that in the day of judgment Christ will even reward him for doing this, saying, “I was hungry and you gave me food …” (see Matt. 25:31–46).

Are we then aggravating the problem by obeying him?

Five Views

The dilemma rests on the assumption that a growing population is the basic cause of world hunger. To gain a perspective on this, let’s look at five positions that differ in their analyses of either its cause or cure.

1. Malthus. Thomas Malthus, an eighteenth-century English economist, is most famous for his Essay on the Principle of Population. He concluded that growth in population will always tend to outrun food supply since it increases “geometrically” (2, 4, 8, 16 …) while food supply increases at best only “arithmetically” (2, 4, 6, 8 …). So “the poor you will always have with you,” their number limited only by scarce resources and the evils of “war, famine, and pestilence.”

What then shall we do about world hunger? Welfare aid to the poor will serve only to increase their number, so Malthus advocated benign neglect of the poor and urged them to exercise “moral restraint” in sexual activities.

2. Optimism over technology. Malthus’s dire predictions of chronic hunger and poverty were ignored in the heady optimism of nineteenth-century Europe. Advances in science, technology, and economic production led to great faith in our limitless ability to produce to meet our needs. This view has been reinforced by the discovery in the 1960s of dramatically high, yielding varieties of corn, wheat, and rice. When these were introduced into parts of India, Mexico, the Philippines, and elsewhere, the “Green Revolution” blossomed.

The scientist primarily responsible for pioneering these developments, Norman Borlaug, won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Many development agencies are currently trying to spread the techniques of the Green Revolution to the hungry parts of the world.

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What then shall we do about world hunger? According to this position, technology will eliminate world hunger. The knowledge for it already exists, awaiting only our willingness to invest time and money to put it into widespread use.

3. Environmental crisis: The New Malthusians. Rachel Carson’s best-selling Silent Spring has, however, stimulated public outcry against the excessive use of chemicals in agriculture. And what are we to make of the droughts and floods that caused mass starvation in Africa and Asia in 1972–73? The ecological balance of earth’s life-support system is evidently more delicate than many had at first supposed. Further, the energy crisis shows that we do not possess an inexhaustible supply of essential minerals. The idea that we can always find a “technological fix” for our problems has increasingly come under attack.

Attempts to use modern technology to grow more food are viewed with extreme caution and even disapproval because alteration of the environment may cause further ecological damage. According to some scholars, such methods aggravate the basic cause of hunger—too many people. In much of the world, excess population has caused permanent environmental damage because of overgrazing, deforestation, erosion, and pollution. Many biologists are sounding the alarm: when these things happen, they say, the inevitable result is massive disaster.

What then shall we do about world hunger? This perspective provides the reasoning behind “lifeboat ethics,” which argues that bringing more people aboard a lifeboat already filled to capacity will result in more deaths than if we were to allow those in the water to die. So the new Malthusians call for strict population controls rather than further aid to starving countries.

4. Economic reform. We have seen that the new Malthusians point to excessive population growth in Third World countries as the basic cause of world hunger. In contrast, a number of people find the cause in the actions of not the poor but the rich countries; they consume too much, and they use their power to take advantage of the poor countries.

This viewpoint notes the accepted fact that patterns of world consumption are determined by purchasing power, not need. For example, in the case of minerals the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes more than one-third of the world’s nonrenewable resources. In the case of food, the U.S. annually consumes close to 2,000 pounds of grain per person (most of it indirectly, for livestock), as compared with 400 pounds in India. Further, the rich world imports more protein from the poor world. As a result, Third World countries are left with inadequate resources to support themselves.

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Two other factors make it even more difficult for poor countries to improve their situation. First, they have to accept inequitable terms of trade with rich countries. What happens is that much of their best land is controlled by multinational corporations whose interests are to reap profits by producing such crops as coffee, sugar, bananas, cocoa, and rubber as cheaply as possible for export to the West. Also, the prices poor countries must pay for needed imports from industrial countries have increased much faster than the prices of their own exports to industrial countries.

The second factor concerns a skewed distribution of wealth. The profit that does stay in the poor country may simply fatten their elite. And further, this group often have vested interests in the status quo. This means they may oppose land reforms that would enable the landless to grow food for themselves.

This fourth viewpoint therefore blames an inequitable world economic system for world hunger. We are not on a lifeboat but in a luxury liner feasting on products taken in unfair exchange.

What then shall we do about world hunger? This perspective says we must reduce consumption in rich countries, and revise the world economic arrangements so that poor countries get fair treatment from outside. Poor countries must also be encouraged to carry out economic reforms within their borders.

5. Shift in birth and death rates. “Demographic transition” is a widely documented phenomenon, so all viewpoints must take it into account. It concerns the change in a country’s birth and death rates from high to low when it develops economically. This takes place in two stages. First, because of better health and nutrition, death rates fall while birth rates remain high, bringing about a period of rapid growth in population. This occurred in Western European countries during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in Japan and the United States in the late nineteenth century, and has been occurring in most Third World or poorer countries since World War I and especially since World War II.

The second stage of the transition occurred in industrialized nations about 50 to 150 years after death rates declined; birth rates then fell, until zero or near zero population growth resulted. Although birth control techniques at that time were primitive and largely ineffective, one sees that in effecting low birth rates, human decisions to limit family size are more important than birth control techniques or government programs.

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In some Third World countries that have experienced social and economic progress (such as Taiwan, Singapore, and Costa Rica), birth rates began to decline 10 or 15 years ago; but these have not yet matched the low level of death rates, and these populations are still growing significantly. In poor countries, where a child means an extra pair of hands on the farm and additional old-age insurance, it makes sense to have a large family. Since young children are much more vulnerable to deficiencies caused by poor nutritional and health conditions, parents are more likely to survive to old age than their children are to adulthood. To ensure that at least one son will survive to support the parents in their old age, it is necessary to bear about six children, according to computer simulations.

When a society experiences socioeconomic development, several basic changes take place in the lifestyle of the people. Farming becomes commercialized and mechanized so that fewer people are needed in agriculture. Instead, more become wage earners in offices and factories. Also, children are no longer economic assets; with the increasing necessity of education they become liabilities in terms of costs to support them till they reach financial independence. Further, government and employer-sponsored retirement programs replace children as the source of security in old age. Under these conditions, families voluntarily limit the number of children borne, and societal birth rates fall.

What then shall we do about world hunger? This view says that it is not sufficient merely to promote the use of birth control devices in order to reduce birth rates in poor countries. Rather, a country needs greater socioeconomic development, particularly in education, wage employment, and social security, as well as in health and nutrition.

Relationship with Scripture

We have looked at various analyses of the cause and cure of world hunger. Not all these perspectives are mutually exclusive, nor is the truth contained in only one. The Christian or the scientist can find something valid in most of them. The problem is to pull together useful facts and ideas to arrive at a position that is consistent with biblical teaching.

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First, how does Scripture relate to optimism with respect to technology? The Bible says God created man in his own image and gave him dominion over the earth. Because of this, human beings have been able to exercise control over nature through their possession of culture and technology. Archaeology and history give evidence that more than once in the last ten thousand years or so technological revolutions have helped people to break through the limits set by scarce resources. There is room for believing that we are yet capable of increasing world food production.

Such a faith must, however, be tempered with humility and caution; this calls to mind the concerns of present-day environmentalists. Scripture says God gave Adam the right to eat the earth’s produce, but he also charged him to take care of the garden (Gen. 2:15). The command to be good stewards, together with the understanding that our knowledge is limited and often faulty, should result in respect for the world God created.

Next, we must consider the ideas of Malthus, and then pass on to the somewhat revised and expanded views of the new Malthusians. Malthus’s view of man stopped at the level of sex and food. However, the Bible teaches that because man is made in God’s image, he seeks a quality of life fuller than is suggested by mere physical existence. This seeking can lead him to plan rationally for his future. Food, then, is not the only limit on population growth. Instead, as history bears out, increasing prosperity brings with it increasing nonmaterial aspirations. These produce a complex lifestyle that leads people to limit their offspring voluntarily.

But before developing this we need to return to the special claims of the new Malthusians. Concern that overpopulation will cause irreparable damage to the environment has led many thinkers like situation ethicist Joseph Fletcher to suggest a moratorium on sending food to the starving.

In contrast, direct biblical commands to feed the hungry constrain us to continue sending aid. “If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother” (Deut. 15:7). And James says that if a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, we show dead faith if we ignore him (James 2:14–16). God’s purpose in giving these commands to Israel and the church is not to restrict their concern to one group, but to teach them in pilot projects to show compassion to anyone in need.

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But does obedience to these and other commands mean we are contributing to greater future starvation by enabling hungry people to reproduce themselves? If so, we stand accused of foolish emotionalism.

As the perspective of “Economic Reform” notes, damage to the environment is due not only to overpopulation in some places. It also comes when commercial interests force poor people onto marginal lands and exploit ruthlessly their resources. If, given present technological practices, we are in danger of exceeding the capacity of the earth to support human life, then the rich are more to blame than the poor. This view is supported by economists E. F. Schumacher and Kenneth Boulding, among others. They argue convincingly that growing consumption by the rich is a greater culprit than is the growing number of the poor. Worldly economic systems, whether socialist or capitalist, are based on “more is better.” All economic systems need the correction of the Bible, which warns us against materialism, telling us that man shall not live by bread alone. Our greed and our disrespect for God’s created world will lead to disaster if we continue to use nonrenewable resources extravagantly, and to pollute the environment.

Even if we grant that overpopulation is a major problem, we solve nothing by allowing poor people to die of starvation. Studies have shown that when standards of nutrition and health improve, young children are less likely to die, and limiting the number of children borne begins to make sense to poor people. Further, when education and jobs are made available to people, their aspirations rise along with their sense of security. Children become less necessary as insurance and, indeed, become economic liabilities. When a society begins to reach this point, birth rates have been observed to fall. It is fair to conclude that poverty breeds babies.

Vested economic interests often are the cause of poverty—or they at least prevent its alleviation. Unjust practices and laws that penalize the poor and the powerless too often go unchallenged—but not by the Bible, which contains many warnings against those who misuse the poor. Injustice occurs not only because the rich have much while the poor have little (often through no fault of their own), but frequently also because the rich actively oppress the poor. For example, see Amos 2:6–8; 4:1; 5:11–12; James 5:1–6.

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What should be the Christian’s response? He should base his action on God’s desire that he show not only justice, but also active love, that goes beyond legal requirements to meet the needs of the poor. “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts.… If there is a poor man with you … you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need … Beware, lest there is a base thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,’ and … you give him nothing.… For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore [emphasis added] I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand …” (Deut. 15:1–11, NASB). This is important for our Christian witness because we are to show our faith by our works (James 2:14–20).


1. We must refuse to pursue increasing levels of material consumption while ignoring worldwide depletion of resources. Not only would we be better stewards, but we would probably live more abundant lives if our interests were more balanced, so that we paid more attention to our spiritual, social, and psychological needs than to our material desires.

2. We must take the opportunity to support agricultural research in less-developed countries. Methods developed in the West are often inapplicable in the physical and social environments of Third World countries. In fact, they often cause or aggravate ecological problems and inequalities between rich and poor.

3. We should support development aid as well as continue to send relief to starving countries. Before people will use birth control techniques, they need mass elementary education, technology that creates rather than eliminates jobs, community health and nutrition, and basic social security.

4. As Christians, we should stimulate the conscience of our nation, bring unjust practices to light, and help form policy that reflects our concern for justice and compassion. We must ask multinational corporations to be accountable for their activities around the world.

5. Christian missions should minister to the whole person, just as Christ did when he lived on earth. God created each person as one, with body, mind, and spirit. Missionaries and Christian organizations must wed evangelism and the treatment of material poverty in a comprehensive approach to human development.

We see, then, that helping the hungry does not increase the problem of poverty and starvation; God’s commandments are not foolish. Rather, obedience to the biblical mandates of stewardship, justice, and love is prerequisite to freedom from want. How should we obey these biblical mandates?

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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