Can African agriculture significantly contribute towards feeding the world by 2050 and beyond?
Ousman Tall, Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat
There are growing concerns about the world feeding itself in 2050 and beyond, and many consider that Africa has the potential to positively impact this enormous, though not insurmountable, challenge. Is this wishful thinking or reality based on the success stories of agricultural production and productivity on the African continent? Or, is it based on Africa’s untapped potential and its readiness to ensure that everything is put in place to make this dream a reality?
According to Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, “Africa may have the potential in agriculture, but you cannot eat potential”. Discussing Africa’s potential requires an understanding of the challenges impeding agricultural growth and development on the continent. Based on my experience and understanding of agricultural development trends in Africa, the continent is far from feeding itself in 2050, due to a combination of several factors, which are equally reinforcing and which affect all sectors of the agricultural economy. Take for example, the food crops sub-sector in Africa.
Yields in Africa for a majority of food crops are below the world average and substantial progress can be made. However, boosting yields requires more and better research to generate new and appropriate technologies as well as increased funding for the dissemination and adoption of these technologies to ensure that essential farming inputs are available and affordable. Agricultural research institutes in Africa lack the funding to carry out the research required to address yield deficits. Similarly, farmers cannot afford the high cost of inputs and most countries are not in the position to provide subsidies.
Rice paddy yields by continent (2007-14)
Source: FAOSTAT-Agriculture (database), Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome
Furthermore, if the plan to increase yields in Africa were to be based on the context of the Asian Green Revolution, the costs for Africa could outweigh the benefits. The Green Revolution was based on the massive introduction of improved varieties, agro-chemicals and investment in infrastructure. Africa simply cannot introduce the use of agro-chemicals on a colossal scale to increase yields. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for less than 2 percent of the total fertilizer used in the world, not as a matter of choice, but partly due to its high cost or to a lack of understanding of its usage. Moreover, the misapplication of agrochemicals is detrimental to the environment and human health. Rather, the development of appropriate varietal technologies to increase yields, amidst a decline in the agricultural labour force, should focus on improvements in labour-saving technologies and farmer field schools.
The rate of urban growth in Africa is one of the highest in the world. In West Africa alone, the urban population will reach 500 million in 2050. Increased urbanisation translates into a substantial decline in agricultural workers, who are predominantly rural dwellers. In fact, the ratio of the non-agricultural to the agricultural population in West Africa is expected to increase by 250 percent in 2050. Urbanisation is moving in the same direction for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa and keeping up the pace of food production on the continent will require massive transformation in the agricultural production system.
Africa is already feeling the effects of climate change. The continent is experiencing recurrent droughts and floods for which tolerant and resistant crop varieties need to be developed. Using different climate models, the World Bank predicts that many parts of sub-Saharan Africa will become hotter and drier and that the extent of drylands might increase up to 20% by 2030. Land for crop production in some African countries, especially those in the tropical rainforest zones, will become scarce as a result of the global pressure to spare the forest and preserve the environment. Further warming of the earth will increase land unsuitable for farming and at the same time affect crop yields. In a World Bank report on extreme climate and its impacts, a warming of 1.5°C would reduce sorghum yields alone by 10%.
Notwithstanding these challenges, the continent offers numerous opportunities for agricultural growth and development. There is a huge market potential, supported by an increasing demand in food staples as a result of increased population growth and per capita consumption. The level of regional integration and co-operation taking place within the Regional Economic Communities will stimulate agricultural production and market linkages. Whereas agricultural land in other parts of the world is becoming scarce, Africa is home to 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. The continent is presently home to 19 percent of the world’s youth population, which is expected to double by 2030. This young, and largely unemployed and unskilled population could become the engine of agricultural growth.
The theme of this year’s World Food Day is “Climate is changing. Food and Agriculture Must too”. If Africa is to be an example for the rest of the world in how to sustainably increase food production to feed a growing population, then the policy trajectory of the food and agricultural economy must be rethought in order to appropriately factor in not only climate change, which is vital, but all of the issues mentioned above. African researchers and technicians can play a crucial role in addressing these issues by actively and emphatically guiding their policy makers. Unless we do so, per capita food production will diminish and African agriculture’s opportunity to show the world how to feed itself by 2050 will remain an illusion.
Even if you know nothing about the French Revolution, you’ve probably heard of Marie-Antoinette’s reaction on being told the people had no bread: “Let them eat cake”. In fact, the infamous catch phrase was probably invented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who attributes it to an unnamed princess in his Confessions, written before the 14 year-old Austrian princess even married the future Louis XVI. As far as the course of events went, it doesn’t matter whether she said it or not, since the people believed that it was the kind of thing she would say. The doomed monarchs could have learned a few lessons in the art of good government from the founder of the Bourbon dynasty. One goal of the reforms instigated by Henri IV, King of France from 1589 to 1610, was a chicken in every pot, on a Sunday at least. This slogan was to reappear in the United States in the 20th century, with “a car in every garage” tacked on to some versions.
Food riots are thing of the past in most OECD countries, but in 2007-08, various places around the world would see people taking to the streets as food prices rose suddenly in response to the interactions among a number of factors, including high oil prices forcing up production costs, drought in major producing areas, diversion of land to biofuels, and a very low level of stocks.
The food price crisis in 2008, the renewed price hikes in 2010, and depressingly regular reports since of people facing famine (the latest in South Sudan) have raised questions about whether agri-food markets could be relied on in future to deliver sufficient quantities of food at affordable prices. And not just in sensationalist media with their love of explosions in food prices and population growth. In 2009, Sir John Beddington, the UK’s chief scientist, warned of “Food, energy, water and the climate: a perfect storm of global events?”
As we pointed out in this article, there have been predictions that the world will face mass starvation ever since Malthus published his famous essays on demography. As Malthus himself put it in An Essay on the principle of population: “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”
And yet it hasn’t happened. The UK’s population for example doubled over 1750-1800 (the year in which Malthus published The present high price of provisions), and tripled over the next century. This demographic surge couldn’t have happened without the interaction of a number of elements. We often talk about the agricultural “revolution”, suggesting sudden overthrow of the old systems. But even in Britain, the initial changes to agricultural techniques and practices such as enclosing common land and introducing crop rotation were spread over centuries, and what accelerated the pace of change was interaction with the industrial revolution. Improved communications and storage and preservation techniques allowed producers to serve markets far from home. A well-functioning financial system provided capital. And a feedback loop was created whereby improved food supplies supported a bigger population that in turn provided labour for emerging industries and markets for farmers.
Likewise, when looking at the prospects for food production and consumption today, we have to look at the whole picture. The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2014-2023 doesn’t expect a Malthusian crisis to materialise. The report argues that the world’s farmers and fishers will be able to satisfy demand over the next 10 years. Rising incomes, urbanisation and new eating habits will reinforce the transition to diets richer in protein, fats and sugar. . In real terms, prices are expected to fall (slightly) but remain higher than the historical lows seen in the early 2000s.
This year’s report has a special focus on India, the world’s second most populous country with the largest number of farmers and also the largest number of “food-insecure” people. The Outlook proposes a relatively optimistic scenario for India, with the expansion in the production and consumption of food both projected to continue, led in particular by higher value added sectors, even for staples, for instance consumers preferring basmati rice rather than inferior varieties.
At least two major issues still need to be addressed though.
First, any rise in food prices can affect the food security of the poor. An OECD working paper shows that developing countries with very different levels of economic development, population size and geographical location have succeeded in reducing poverty and improving nutrition. Despite the significant differences among them, they share some characteristics. During the period when they had the greatest success in reducing poverty, the macroeconomic context became progressively more favourable. Their own governments were lowering export taxes, reducing overvalued exchange rates and dismantling inefficient state interventions in agricultural markets. Meanwhile, the governments of rich country trading partners were reducing the kinds of support to their farmers that distorted production and trade the most.
Second, as argued by the OECD in Climate Change, Water and Agriculture that we featured last month, climate change poses challenges on a different scale from the variations that can affect crops and livestock during the course of a season or even a year or two. Future changes in the climate could have significant impacts on land use, commodity production, and where different activities are viable; and the implications of expanding food production for the natural resource base and climate change.
The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook to 2020 published this week expects commodity prices for cereals to be 20% higher over the coming decade compared with the 2000s, and meat 30% higher. That’s good news for farmers the world over, but for the one in seven of the world’s population who goes to bed hungry, it could spell disaster.
Moreover, price volatility could make matters worse.
So what should we do?
The immediate priority is to address the severe consequences of hunger and malnutrition, whose root cause is poverty. Undernourishment rapidly leads to underweight babies and prevents young children from developing properly, both physically and cognitively. The related problems generally last for life.
In a report including contributions from 10 international organisations OECD coordinated with FAO, we make a number of recommendations to deal with the consequences of high and volatile prices on the most vulnerable.
Working closely with the UN World Food Programme, we propose setting up small strategic food reserves for rapid deployment through safety net programmes in situations where countries find it impossible to procure supplies for themselves.
We also outline a number of market-based financial instruments to assist vulnerable countries and households, including measures designed to help farmers manage unavoidable risks.
In brief, we propose a wide range of safety nets that can come to the aid of the most vulnerable, quickly.
The long term priority – the sustainable solution to price volatility and food insecurity – is to improve the productivity and resilience of global agriculture. Doing so requires action on a number of fronts.
OECD and FAO have a joint proposal for a new Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS). Associated with AMIS is a proposal for a Rapid Response Forum to improve international coordination of government responses to food emergencies, preferably before a situation becomes a widespread crisis.
Better information and transparency on financial markets is also important, as is consistency between regulatory regimes. This would help reduce opportunity for market manipulation and ensure that the farm and food sector has instruments at its disposal to help smooth price fluctuations and to manage risk.
Agricultural trade will be even more important in the years to come. Food has to flow more easily from surplus to deficit areas and humanitarian food purchases and shipments must not be caught up in export restrictions or be taxed. Most of the future growth of supply – and demand – will come from developing countries, but supply growth will be stalled if competitive suppliers around the world are not able to access regional and global markets.
Even if WTO trade negotiations are currently in great difficulty, we must reduce the import and export barriers to trade in food, feed and fuel that add to price volatility and constrain global food security.
We have also made tough recommendations on biofuel policies that subsidize production, mandate blends, and restrict trade.
Let’s be very clear about this. We support the development of a wide variety of renewable fuels, including biofuels. But our analysis has shown that there are higher costs and lower benefits than anticipated, as well as unintended negative impacts, from current biofuel policies.
Finally – and arguably most importantly – in our report, the international organisations make a strong case for various actions to improve farm productivity. This is an essential ingredient in a sustainable and long-term solution to the challenge of increasing food production between 70% and 100% by 2050.
For many developing countries, greater use of existing technologies offers immediate and significant opportunities. For all countries, new science and technology offers further promise.
Returns to investment in agricultural research are enormous: generally over 20% and as high as 80 % a year. But the lead times are very long – often 20 years or more. The investment that will bring those long-term benefits has to start now.
Required investments are way beyond what can be achieved with public funds or development aid, although both are important. National governments have to create an enabling environment that encourages private and public-private investments to flow.
OECD will focus more on this, drawing upon its agriculture, science and development communities to highlight best policy practices for increased innovation in agriculture.
Can the global food and agriculture system meet the challenges of the coming decades? I’m optimistic. Throughout history, farmers have demonstrated again and again their capacity to adapt to new circumstances, adopt new methods and technologies, and supply safe and nutritious food for growing populations.
Since 1960, cereal production world-wide has doubled, and fruit and vegetable production has tripled. The increases in meat production have been even more dramatic – pork production has more than tripled and poultry has increased sevenfold.
The G20 is giving agriculture the importance it deserves. And acting now will position the sector well for a profitable future in the service of us all.
Artists never know what they’re depicting. Or rather, they may be depicting a lot more than they realise, and what seemed banal at the time becomes interesting later. Watch an old movie where the characters go to the cinema, and you’ll probably be struck more by the fact that half the people are smoking than by whatever action is supposed to grab your attention.
Historians try to glean hints of what everyday life was like in the past by examining incidental details in pictures and written accounts. In Vermeer’s Hat, for instance, Timothy Brook uses the objects and scenes in Dutch artwork to explore the development of international trade in the 17th century, examing where the fur for the hat came from for example.
Brian Wansink, of the Applied Economics and Management Department at Cornell, and his brother Craig, from the Religious Studies Department, Virginia Wesleyan College applied this approach to one of the most painted religious scenes in the history of art: The Last Supper, when Jesus and his followers shared a meal together for the last time (prompting French poet Paul Verlaine to remark that “You can’t judge a man by the company he keeps – Judas’s friends were very nice”).
The Wansinks wanted to see if the paintings revealed anything about how the average amount of food consumed over the ages has changed. Their results, published in the International Journal of Obesity, show that over the past thousand years, the size of the entrées in the paintings has grown by 69%, plate size has increased 66% and the size of the loaves of bread by 23%.
The study also shows how artists have unconsciously reflected increases in food production and affordability over the centuries. Another thing the paintings reflect is the fact that this change was extremely gradual until recently. According to records going back to the tenth century, it took a thousand years to increase wheat yields in England from around half a tonne a hectare to 2 tonnes. To increase from 2 tonnes to 6 tonnes took 40 years in the 20th century.
Portion sizes have also increased dramatically over the few decades. The average size of an American hamburger in the 1950s was just 1.5 ounces (42.5 g), compared with 8 ounces or more today (226 g), and when McDonald’s first opened in 1955, a serving of fries was 2.4 ounces and contained 210 calories, against today’s 7 ounces and 610 calories.
The impacts can be seen on any street, with obesity now a worry in all the developed countries and an increasing number of developing ones too, where the two extremes of malnourishment – obesity and hunger – may exist simulataneously.
Franco Sassi and colleagues from the OECD’s Health Division discuss strategies to prevent obesity in a working paper, and will be discussing the issues in depth a new book to be published later in the year.
The photo of what would happen to Michelangelo’s David if he adopted a modern diet and lifestyle is from an ad campaign for the German Olympic Sport Committee, “If you don’t move, you get fat”, by Scholz and Friends