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Africa to the fore in food security

A new report by Foresight argues for a fundamental change to the global food system if a rapidly expanding global population is to be fed over the next 40-years

A new report, The future of food and farming, has examined the multiple threats that are converging on the world’s food system, including changes in the climate, competition for resources such as water and energy, and changing consumption patterns. These threats provide considerable challenges to sustaining the world’s food supply.

Professor John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific advisor and head of the Foresight programme that produced the report, said at the launch: “The Foresight study shows that the food system is already failing in at least two ways. Firstly, it is unsustainable, with resources being used faster than they can be naturally replenished. Secondly, a billion people are going hungry with another billion suffering ‘hidden hunger’, whilst a billion people are over-consuming. The report has helped identify a wide range of possible actions that can meet the challenges facing food and farming, both now and in the future.”

The report’s main findings are that efforts to end hunger internationally are already stalling, and without decisive action food prices could rise substantially over the next 40 years; the global food system is consuming more resources than is sustainable; and there is no quick fix. The potential threats converging on the global food system are so great that action is needed across many fronts, from changing diets to eliminating food waste.

Indeed, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala the former managing director for Africa at the World Bank, (who, for clarification, had no part in this report) recently made the observation that 50 per cent of the world’s unused arable land is in Africa; and that 50 per cent of Africa’s food harvest is wasted through farmers inability to get it to market.

It is clear that in order for Africa to play its part in finding a solution to the impending global food security crisis, the continent’s physical infrastructure must be improved. Currently, transport costs can amount to a staggering 77 per cent of the cost of exports.

Nevertheless, even before transport infrastructure is improved, Africa’s role is spelled out in the report with the comment: “Agriculture accounts for 65 per cent of full-time employment in Africa, 25–30 per cent of GDP, and over half of its export earnings.

“Perceptions about African agriculture are mixed. It has been called stagnant by some, and assumed to have failed smallholders – per capita production indicates that the amount of food grown on the continent per person has only just recovered today to the 1960 level.

“However, when account is taken of the substantial growth in demand from population increases, it can be argued that African agriculture has been dynamic and adaptive over decades. Indeed, net production data show that there has been substantial growth in production across all regions of Africa, with output more than trebling over 50 years (with the greatest growth in north and west Africa), and growing faster than world output. A review commissioned by this Project of 40 African case studies demonstrates where sustainable increases in agricultural yield have been achieved – and the considerable potential that could be realised if these examples can be scaled up and applied elsewhere.

“The challenge still remains substantial for African agriculture: continued population growth, rapidly changing patterns of consumption and the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation are driving limited resources of food, energy, water and materials towards critical thresholds.”

Professor Jules Pretty OBE, Professor of Environment and Society and Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Essex in the UK – one of the nine distinguished academics that made up the project’s lead expert group, itself part of more than 200 individuals and organisations from across the world that contributed and supported the report – clarified that Foresight had commissioned 40 case studies in 20 countries across Africa.

He said that his work found that in a period of five to 10 years, in these 40 projects, 10 million farmers had been able to more than double their outputs using the sustainable methods. “Many of the innovations have been in what agriculturists call the orphan crops, that is those that have been missed by mainstream agricultural research such as cassava, plantain, the orange sweet potato, pigeon peas, soya bean and so forth,” Pretty said at the project report’s launch. “And farmers appreciate when they have the opportunity to have diverse systems and to have improvements to the crops that are specific and grown in their localities rather than just the central, high value cereals.”

Pretty was also able to report that Foresight ran a very successful workshop in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso to address questions that have come out of the African research. “I was at a farmer field school south of Ouagadougou, one of 3,500 farmer field schools in Burkina Faso,” he said. “Burkina has a denser and more effective rural social infrastructure for farmers than in the UK. Farmers were using a wide variety of technologies, a range of organic and GM technologies on their fields. They had cut their pesticide use to an eighth of its former use, there were demonstrable impacts on lower residues in water, better health of farmers and families and a better environmental outcome because they were growing lots of trees as well.”

Pretty made the point that, perhaps unlike any other economic sector in Africa, state involvement is crucial – when governments intervene, success spreads. His conclusion was that when governments realise that agriculture is important and they can do something about it, such as with farmer field schools and investments in agricultural research, they can produce outstanding results and benefits.

“Two notable examples of this are one, in Malawi, where the government launched a subsidy scheme for fertilisers a few years ago and within two years the country switched from being a substantial food importer to an exporter. Malawi now is food secure not insecure.  That was through a brave government intervention, quite a costly one but a very effective one.

“The second example is from Kenya, where Kenya supports extensions, just as in Burkina Faso. Kenya’s public extension system reaches half a million farmers every year and they helped to form 7,500 business groups of farmers working together each year within the country, so it shows what can be done if public money is used in the right kind of way.”

Clearly, Pretty and his colleagues believe if Africa gets the right government with a clear vision, and the knowledge, incentives and the institutions are right, it can actually move forward positively and get the sustainable intensification of agriculture to achieve the large increase of food production that the world will need by the middle half of this century.

Stephen Williams