Over a long period, state intervention in food production and marketing has been discouraged by the international financial institutions that advise poor countries. In support of this orthodoxy, the proportion of foreign aid (from OECD countries and multilateral institutions) allocated to agriculture fell from 9% in 1995 to 6% in 2016.
Commitment of domestic funds to agriculture has been insufficient to compensate. The 2003 Maputo Declaration signed by African Union leaders in 2003, and renewed a decade later, called for 10% of national budgets to be dedicated to agriculture. Only 5 out of 54 member countries have achieved this goal, with enthusiasm amongst others apparently in decline.
The consequence of such prolonged lack of investment is an inadequate infrastructure for rural economies. As much as 40% of harvested crops may be wasted due to ineffective farm machinery, storage facilities and poor roads in many developing countries. Agriculture contributes only 16.2% of the GDP of Africa, despite engaging over 60% of the population to some extent.
For individual households, poverty is the driver of food insecurity. Lack of money precludes the purchase of food, however plentiful its availability. Shortage of food is not the cause of global hunger.
Without determined intervention, poverty and hunger lock together in a downward spiral of cause and effect. Hunger and malnutrition reduce the physical and mental capacity of families to escape poverty though work and learning. It is no coincidence that the official statistic for global poverty (767 million) is very similar to that for global hunger (815 million).
Although headline economic performance in Africa has improved, development experts regularly warn against the presumption that national prosperity correlates with food security. Published by a distinguished Panel headed by Kofi Annan, the Africa Progress Report 2014 observes that “Africa’s recent growth has not done nearly as much as it should to reduce poverty and hunger.”
Land and Gender
Whilst small farms in Africa have many advantages in striving to improve yields, the division of plots through shared inheritance sooner or later becomes unsustainable. A further obstacle to rural economic development is insecure tenure, a fact of life for the majority of poor farmers. Less than 10% of the land in Africa is covered by title documents. This deters investment and increases vulnerability to eviction by state or corporate interests.
Weak tenure has become more acute with the feminization of agriculture brought about by young men migrating for urban work. Women now produce 60%-80% of food in the poorest countries, despite owning only 10%-20% of the farms. Discrimination limits availability of credit, advisory support and access to local economic decision-making.
Conflict and Governance
Of 815 million people who were undernourished in 2016, 489 million were located in countries experiencing violent conflict. The disappointing increase in global hunger has been attributed to that factor. It is generally impossible even to measure undernourishment and malnutrition in these conflict zones.
The four countries at severe risk of famine in early 2018, South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, are all undermined by significant insurgent conflict. Food production in Syria has collapsed. Warring parties in these countries show little compunction in the denial of food as a weapon.
For all the principled vision of the Sustainable Development Goals, the dream of ending global hunger by 2030 cannot be realised without fresh resolve to activate mechanisms for conflict resolution.
Given the demands of a rising world population aspiring to richer diets, expansion of the area of land under cultivation is an obvious need. The reality that 12 million hectares a year are lost through soil degradation is one of the causes of food insecurity.
According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, one third of the planet’s land is severely degraded, with 1.3 billion people attempting to increase crop yields from a deteriorating natural resource. The global economic cost of land degradation is estimated at $295 billion per annum.
In sub-Saharan Africa the incidence of arable degradation may be as high as 65%. Fragile topsoil is losing vital nutrients through unbroken cycles of planting and overgrazing, often on unsuitable arid or semi-arid land. Desertification in West Africa may be advancing at the rate of 5km per annum.
The productivity of modern industrial farming has been phenomenal. Global grain production tripled between 1961 and 2010, a period in which the area under cultivation expanded by only 25%. But the achievements of this “green revolution” have been at the expense of the natural environment on which agriculture depends. Modern crops require heavy inputs of chemicals and water.
One of the most ambitious, yet vital, Sustainable Development Goals is number 15.3 which strives to achieve a land degradation-neutral world by 2030.
The US and the European Union have led other developed countries in providing state incentives for production of biofuels. In 2016, 35% of the US corn (maize) crop was processed for ethanol. This represented 13% of world maize production, sufficient to feed over 400 million people for a year.
The lure of biofuels for these governments is lower dependence on fossil fuels for transport, together with a corresponding reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. However, the net saving in carbon dioxide emissions from maize-based ethanol has been exposed as less than 20%.
The 2011 report, Price Volatility and Food Security, produced by a High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, expressed disquiet about a future in which rich countries seek national energy security through “food-for-fuel”, regardless of the state of global food security. Identifying biofuels as a key driver of rising food prices, it recommended that global leaders should withdraw biofuel targets and financial incentives.
In 2016, US production of ethanol from corn continues to reach record levels. In Europe, efforts to halve the use of biofuels and eliminate subsidies by 2020 have been only partially implemented.
Climate models predict that richer countries in temperate zones may benefit from higher crop yields within the two degree temperature rise envisaged in international climate change negotiations.
By contrast, crop yields and grazing quality in tropical regions are already close to their limit of temperature sensitivity. With temperatures in many parts of inland Africa rising faster than the global average, maize yields may be affected even within the coming decade. “Slow onset” events such as desertification and ocean acidification present fundamental challenges to poorer farmers and fishing communities.
The uniquely insidious impact of climate change is therefore to exacerbate all the underlying social and political dysfunctions that cause food insecurity. The State of Food and Agriculture published in 2016 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warns that: “climate change impacts will seriously compromise food production in countries and regions that are already highly food-insecure. These impacts will jeopardize progress towards the key Sustainable Development Goals of ending hunger and poverty by 2030.”
more Food Security briefings (updated May 2018)
Food Security Definition and Global Divide
Right to Food
Sustainable Development Goal for Food
Governance of Food Security
Solutions to Food Insecurity
Source material and useful links