African Researchers on the Linkage of Family Planning,  Food Security, and Environmental Sustainability

African Researchers on the Linkage of Family Planning, Food Security, and Environmental Sustainability

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African researchers are well-represented among the articles that the FPESA project team found relevant to the linkage between family planning and environmental sustainability. They also are the most likely from any region to bring up the need to improve access to and use of voluntary family planning in order to slow rates of population growth that are demonstrated to be environmentally deleterious. African authors thus are more likely than those from other continents to follow the full demographic pathway of the FPESA conceptual framework from family planning to environmental sustainability. As with almost all other researchers, however, these authors provide empirical evidence only for selected linkages in the pathway.

Out of 22 top-ranked papers calling for family planning to address environmental concerns, 9 (41 percent) had complete, majority, or at least one-half African authorship. (We gave top ranking, for greatest relevant to the project’s primary hypothesis that family planning supports environmental sustainability, to a total of 112 out of 939 papers that we reviewed or fully assessed.) African authors were well-represented among 72 top-ranked papers asserting or demonstrating connections between population growth and environmental problems, with 15 papers (21 percent) total. We based African authorship on identification with African institutions in papers, on our personal knowledge of an author’s African background, or on Internet searches establishing birth and/or educational training in Africa.

We did not conduct as full or careful of an author count by continent among the 302 papers ranked “4,” for “likely helpful” to the primary FPESA hypothesis that family planning contributes to environmental sustainability. But we believe that the high proportion of African authorship pertains to these papers as well. We do not speculate as to why African authors might be somewhat more likely than those from other regions to test or assert the population-environment connection. But their strong presence in our selection of relevant or probably relevant papers helps to confirm our secondary hypothesis, that the linkage of family planning to environmental sustainability is of considerable interest among a diversity of researchers around the world. It may be that African researchers can be models for those on other continents interested in exploring the family planning-environment connection.

Here are brief summaries of some of the most compelling African-authored papers we have found:

  • Household size—presumably a proxy for, or at least closely related to, fertility—was the first among several determinants of food insecurity in the area studied by Paul S. Amaza et al., Calling particular attention to this influence, the authors wrote that the Nigerian “government should give adequate priority and attention to policy measures directed towards the provision of better family planning.”
  • Another paper about Nigerian food insecurity by Mary O. Agada and Edwin M. Igbokwe, 2014, found household size to have twice the predictive power for food insecurity as farm income, total annual income, or the scale of home-based production. Agada and Igbokwe also called for improvements in family planning. Mesfin Welderufael, 2014, concluded similarly and made the same policy recommendation.
  • In a paper in the journal Nature, South African scholar Graeme S. Cumming et al., 2014, conceptualize interacting influences of population growth and densification with urbanization and technological change. The authors argue that the collective impact of these forces both magnifies the scale and alters the nature of human-ecological relationships. Feedbacks between natural and social systems are thereby weakened, dangerously undermining the prospects for sustainable resource use and ecological stability.
  • Global population growth contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, and Nigerian population growth contributes to deforestation, which can undermine resilience to climate change impacts, Sajini Faith Iwejingi, 2013, concludes. While acknowledging that her work is descriptive rather than quantitative, she carefully examines the global and Nigerian forces that contribute to emissions and that undermine climate change adaptation and resilience. Among her recommendations are delayed first births and greater use of family planning to reduce fertility.
  • Combining population data and survey results, Ethiopian authors Tesfahun Fentahun and Temesgen Gashaw, 2014, found correlations between population growth and declining size of landholdings, increasing migration to sloping and other marginal farmland, and deforestation. They concluded that demographic forces played an important role in land-use change and land degradation. They did not quantify the magnitude of this role, however, or demonstrate how they derived a causative effect from the correlations that they found. This article, too, included a recommendation of improvement in family planning access and service delivery as one strategy for delinking population and land degradation.
  • Some articles with African authorship treated aspects of the FPESA hypothesis that are unrelated to demographic change. Karen Austrian and Eunice Muthengi, 2014, mention family planning only in passing, as one of several interventions that can build social assets and overall health. Such interventions were found to be more valuable than economic assets alone in reducing vulnerability to unwanted touching and other forms of sexual harassment of girls. How might this relate to the FPESA hypothesis? Simply by adding to the evidence base that family planning can contribute to girls’ and women’s self-confidence, autonomy, and life options—thereby conceivably facilitating more engagement in society and in environmental stewardship and conservation.

Robert Engelman is a senior fellow at Worldwatch and director of its FPESA project.

The Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA), a project of the Worldwatch Institute, is surveying the field of health and environmental research for well-documented and evaluated data shedding light on how the use of family planning might relate to climate change mitigation and adaptation, sustainable water supply and food production, the maintenance of biological diversity, the future of forests and fisheries, and more. Learn more at

Banner photo: DFID – UK Department for International Development


The following Perspective article is excerpted from the report of the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) project, released in June.  A version of this article was presented as a paper at the 7th African Population Conference of the Union for African Population Studies in Johannesburg, South Africa, on December 1, 2015. The FPESA report contains selected annotations from 939 peer-reviewed articles reviewed for potential relevance to the hypothesis that family planning supports environmental sustainability. The report’s 10 Perspective articles were written by project consultants, members of project’s international assessment network, and project director Engelman.

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Africa food security research (Photo: Kate Holt/Africa Practice)


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