Food shortage threat

2009-04-16 00:00

We live in a world where nearly one billion people suffer from chronic food insecurity. An estimated 25 000 people die each day from malnutrition-related causes. Health experts advise us that chronic hunger has major health consequences, including decreased child survival, impaired cognitive and physical development in children, and weaker immune system function, including a lowered resistance to HIV/Aids.

These severe humanitarian consequences of hunger are cause for concern. But we have an even bigger problem. The global food supply is increasingly at risk from forces that threaten the fundamental welfare of a large share of the world’s population, and the stability of major regions of the globe.

A dangerous confluence of factors threatens to severely limit food production in some regions as the world’s population continues to expand. Between 1970 and 1990, global aggregate farm yield rose by an average of two percent each year. Since 1990, however, aggregate farm yield has risen by an annual average of just 1,1%. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) projects that growth in farm yields will continue to fall.

Here are the basic parameters of the problem. First, the world’s population is projected to increase to about 9,2 billion people by 2050. Growing affluence in China, India and elsewhere is increasing demand for resource-intensive meat and dairy products. The world’s farmers will have to double their output by 2050.

Second, food security is closely tied to volatile energy costs. Farming is an energy-intensive business. Crops have to be transported efficiently to market, and petroleum-based fertilisers and pesticides are widely used. Energy price spikes in the future are likely to hit with even greater ferocity than the spike in 2007 and 2008.

Third, water scarcity will worsen in response to population growth, urbanisation, land-use pressures and the effects of climate change. According to a recent report by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, half a billion people live in countries with chronic water shortages, a figure that is expected to rise to four billion by 2050.

Fourth, climate change is challenging farmers on every continent to deal with altered weather patterns, novel agricultural pests and new water conditions.

Despite these alarming trends, investment in agriculture has tumbled in recent decades. By 2007, rich countries devoted a mere four percent of their foreign assistance to agriculture. In Africa, which has the most severe food problems, donor aid to the farm sector plunged from U.S.$4,1 billion in 1989 to just $1,9 billion in 2006. African ministers of agriculture who took a resolution in Maputo to commit 10% of their budget to agriculture, have still to deliver. Africa’s per capita production of maize, its most important crop, has dropped by 14% since 1980.

Equally troubling are sharp cutbacks in research into new technologies, farming techniques and seed varieties that could increase yields, cope with changing climate conditions, battle new pests and diseases, and make food more nutritious. Over the long term, satisfying global food demand can be achieved only by raising yields per hectare. Increasing hectares under production will not meet the growth in food demand. Our overall food security strategy must restore agriculture programmes to prominence.

In recent years, development investment has flowed to urban areas because cities were seen as the drivers of growth. And trade policy of both developed and developing countries has too often focused on protecting domestic farmers, rather than creating well-functioning global markets. Many governments, especially in Europe and Africa, have rejected biotechnology advancements that are necessary to meet future demand.

Without action, we may experience food riots and warfare over food resources. We will have to contend with mass migration and intensifying health issues stemming from malnutrition.

South Africa as a leader in Africa is expected to address this issue at a global level. We formulated the African Union (AU) Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP) which was adopted by African ministers of agriculture some years ago. South Africa has adopted an Anti-poverty Strategy to co-ordinate a sustained and decisive campaign that would respond to the ravages of poverty.

The G8 ministers of agriculture will meet in Treviso, Italy, from April 18 to April 20. In addition to agriculture leaders from the U.S., Canada, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Russia, agriculture ministers from Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, Egypt and the Czech Republic are expected to attend this year’s meeting.

I believe that contributing towards achieving global food security is an opportunity for South Africa. We are an undisputed leader in agricultural production and technology. A more focused effort on our part to join with other nations to increase yields, create economic opportunities for the rural poor and broaden agricultural knowledge could bring a new era in South African diplomacy.

• Siphiwe F. Mkhize PhD is Minister Counsellor (Agriculture) in the Embassy of the Republic of South Africa, Washington.

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