(TMU) – Researchers are decrying collapsing birth rates around the world, which they warn will result in profound social change if governments don’t roll out new reproductive health policies.
Spain, Japan, Portugal and Thailand are among the 23 countries that could see their populations more than half in a “jaw-dropping” trend.
While the global population is expected to peak at about 9.7 billion around 2064, the population will fall to 8.8 by the end of the 21st century.
“That’s a pretty big thing; most of the world is transitioning into natural population decline,” Professor Christopher Murray told BBC News.
“I think it’s incredibly hard to think this through and recognize how big a thing this is; it’s extraordinary, we’ll have to reorganize societies,” he added.
According to a new study by researchers from the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and published in peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet, fertility rates are presently in freefall – and the rate is expected to fall even faster in coming decades.
Fertility rates, or the average number of children women give birth to, are a key indicator for population stability. When the number falls below an average of 2.1, populations start to shrink.
And while women gave birth to an average of 4.7 children in 1950, the birth rate has nearly halved to 2.4 in 2017. However, by 2100 it is expected to fall under to under 1.7.
“That is jaw-dropping,” Murray remarked about the projections.
China, which is currently the most populous nation in the world, is expected to peak at 1.4 people in four years before sharply dropping off to 732 million by 2100. India, in the meantime, will rise to become the most populous nation.
In Japan, population could drop from a peak of 128 million in 2017 to under 53 million by the end of the century.
Italy, too, will face a sharp fall from 61 million to 28 million.
And while some might assume that a smaller population might be better for the environment, the societal impact of collapsing birth rates will offset any imagined benefits of a smaller human footprint in the world.
“That would be true except for the inverted age structure (more old people than young people) and all the uniformly negative consequences of an inverted age structure,” Murray said.
“It will create enormous social change,” he added. “It makes me worried because I have an eight-year-old daughter and I wonder what the world will be like.”
Indeed, with a shrinking population governments will face mounting healthcare costs and a decreased ability to care for the elderly, sharper pressures to not retire, and a shrinking tax revenue base for cash-strapped governments.
Japan, for example, has long struggled to remain competitive as its workforce continues to decline and spending on senior citizens has risen. As a result, the government has raised the retirement age from 60 to anywhere between 65 and 71 as the shrinking population rapidly ages.
According to researchers, one reason why fertility has declined and population growth has slowed is because women are getting better reproductive health education and increased access to contraceptives.
“Responding to population decline is likely to become an overriding policy concern in many nations, but must not compromise efforts to enhance women’s reproductive health or progress on women’s rights,” said Professor Stein Emil Vollset.
Researchers recommend that countries facing a decline should roll out new policies that both improve female reproductive health and also help boost fertility rates.
“We need a soft landing,” Murray said.
And while countries in the developed Global North have offset their falling population number and shrinking labor pool by relying on immigrants from the South, this fails to provide a solution when most countries’ fertility rates are dropping.
“We will go from the period where it’s a choice to open borders, or not, to frank competition for migrants, as there won’t be enough,” argues Prof Murray.
As a result, we could see a future where borders begin to fade away as wage-earners and laborers become increasingly scarce.
“If these predictions are even half accurate, migration will become a necessity for all nations and not an option,” said Professor Ibrahim Abubakar of University College London (UCL).
“To be successful we need a fundamental rethink of global politics,” he added.
“The distribution of working-age populations will be crucial to whether humanity prospers or withers.”
It’s also a mistake to assume that a shrunken population size will somehow mean more material prosperity for the rest of us – and a new approach is needed if we are to save ourselves from disappearing.
“I find people laugh it off; they can’t imagine it could be true, they think women will just decide to have more kids,” Murray said.
“If you can’t [find a solution] then eventually the species disappears, but that’s a few centuries away.”
‘We Are Going To Have Famines of Biblical Proportions in 2021,’ UN Food Agency Warns
The head of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has delivered a stark message to the world: huge populations across the globe are facing severe “famines of biblical proportions” in the near future due to the coronavirus pandemic.
WFP head David Beasley has warned for the past several months that due to the novel coronavirus pandemic and accompanying lockdowns, nations in the developing world are faced with devastating famine and mass starvation unless action is finally taken.
However, with countries in the developed Global North facing their own budget crises and sharp economic downturns due to the ongoing health emergency, funding for the WFP that was previously available to help alleviate hunger and avert global famine won’t be available in 2021.
Speaking to The Associated Press, Beasley noted that his agency’s staffers regularly risk their lives feeding millions of hungry people in refugee camps, conflict zones, and the sites of natural disasters, but the current global crisis makes it important for him to send “a message to the world that it’s getting worse out there … (and) that our hardest work is yet to come.”
In April, Beasley delivered a similarly urgent message to the U.N. Security Council, where he remarked that despite the breakout of the coronavirus pandemic, the world also stood “on the brink of a hunger pandemic” that could see “multiple famines of biblical proportions” within months if critical action wasn’t taken.
And with the Nobel Peace Prize for 2020 being awarded to the World Food Program last month for its vital work providing alleviating mass hunger and boosting food security in conflict zones, Beasley has been struggling to use the win to break through the news cycle and remind people of “the travesty that we’re facing around the world.”
“We were able to avert [famine] in 2020,” Beasley said, adding that the WFP needs further funding or “we are going to have famines of biblical proportions in 2021.”
The agency is currently hoping that it can get an additional $15 billion for the next year to deal with the growing scope of the crisis.
“If I could get that coupled with our normal money, then we avert famine around the world,” he said.
World leaders must be prepared for the looming disaster as well as the critical role the WFP plays. As the organization says: “Until the day we have a medical vaccine, food is the best vaccine against chaos.”
In April, Beasley warned that about 135 million people faced “crisis levels of hunger or worse” in 2020 and that the number could rise by 130 million may be pushed to the brink of starvation by next year. However, on Wednesday he told AP that the number of people facing severe, crisis-level hunger had already risen to 270 million.
He added that three dozen countries could experience critical levels of hunger or famine if the WFP isn’t given the funding it requires.
According to a joint analysis by WFP and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, these countries include Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Lebanon, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somali, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Yemen.
Researchers: Microbots Will Soon Enter Human Colons to Deliver Medical Payloads
Calling it “rough terrain,” a team of researchers at Purdue University is exploring the insides of a living colon like never before, using microscopic robots the width of a few follicles of hair. Perhaps most incredibly, the anal bots require no batteries and are powered via an external electromagnetic field.
Scientists have long believed the use of microbots (and perhaps someday even nanotechnology) inside the human body could bring about a revolution in medical diagnostic abilities and drug delivery. Mechanical engineers at Purdue believe they have passed a critical first test in this journey by creating tiny robots that are controlled remotely and can efficiently deliver a payload without inflaming any tissue reactions in the notoriously sensitive colonic region.
Biomeedical engineer Luis Solorio described one of the challenges the team faced:
“Moving a robot around the colon is like using the people-walker at an airport to get to a terminal faster. Not only is the floor moving, but also the people around you. In the colon, you have all these fluids and materials that are following along the path, but the robot is moving in the opposite direction. It’s just not an easy voyage.”
Mechanical engineer David Cappelleri, also from Purdue, says the tiny robot is controlled magnetically while being monitored through ultrasound imaging.
“When we apply a rotating external magnetic field to these robots, they rotate just like a car tire would to go over rough terrain. The magnetic field also safely penetrates different types of mediums, which is important for using these robots in the human body.”
So far, the team has experimented only on live anesthetized mice and pig colons. Scaling up could be a challenge, says associate professor Craig Goergen, who points out that while the colon is a good entry point for this type of microscopic robotic research, the terrain can present some tough sledding.
“Moving up to large animals or humans may require dozens of robots, but that also means you can target multiple sites with multiple drug payloads.”
As outlined in the team’s paper, which was published in Micromachines, tests on payload delivery involved the microbots being marked with fluorescein dye in a saline vial; they imitated drug delivery mechanisms by steadily dispatching the dye over a period of time. These tests were conducted outside of the mice and pig colons.
The researchers say the tiny robots are expelled from the body via regular waste elimination. While the research is promising, scientists say coordinating multiple microbots for use inside a human body is still years off. However, the implications for such a procedure are huge.
“From a diagnostic perspective, these microrobots might prevent the need for minimally invasive colonoscopies by helping to collect tissue,” adds Goergen. “Or they could deliver payloads without having to do the prep work that’s needed for traditional colonoscopies.”
Scientists Genetically Engineer Meat With Plant Nutrients
Researchers at Tufts University have created a way for health-conscious meat lovers to get plant nutrients when chowing down on a juicy steak. The landmark historic study was published in the journal Metabolic Engineering. The scientists genetically engineered cow muscle cells to produce the same nutrients found in plants, including beta carotene.
“Cows don’t have any of the genes for producing beta carotene,” says lead author Andrew Stout in a press release. “We engineered cow muscle cells to produce this and other phytonutrients, which in turn allows us to impart those nutritional benefits directly onto a cultured meat product in a way that is likely infeasible through animal transgenics and conventional meat production.”
The study authors also discovered that through this process there was a lack of cancer-causing agents in the meat. “We saw a reduction in lipid oxidation levels when we cooked a small pellet of these cells when they were expressing and producing this beta carotene,” Stout reports.
Stout says that there is a compelling argument that genetically modified meat with plant proteins could reduce the risk of cancer. “I think that there is a pretty compelling argument to be made that this could potentially reduce that risk.”
It’s important to note the researchers didn’t slaughter cows, instead they cultured meat, which is created by harvesting muscle cells from living cows. Because of this process, the group argues that they face one obstacle when it comes to putting the nutritious genetically modified meat on everyone’s plate, the cost.
“It will likely be challenging for cultured meat to be competitively priced with factory-farmed meat right out of the gate,” Stern Family Professor of Engineering David Kaplan says. “A value-added product which provides consumers with added health benefits may make them more willing to pay for a cultured meat product.”
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