The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Africa and The Global Food Crisis

Africa and The Global Food Crisis

In the News

July 26, 2009

The global food crisis is far from over, according to a joint statement on global food security from last month’s annual G8 summit. While the prices of food commodities have come down some since their peak of last year, they remain high and unpredictable. The current economic crisis, combined with bad weather and underinvestment in agriculture and food security, has sunk an additional 100 million people into poverty.

There are now more than one billion people suffering form hunger and poverty across the globe. With prices soaring, the world’s poorest nations are losing the fight against hunger. In Africa specifically, the number of people living below the poverty line increased by 50% in a 15 year period. In the past five years, the number of underweight children has risen by 12%.

The situation in Africa is dire. Millions of small-scale farmers can’t grow enough food to sustain their families or communities. Basic farm needs like fertilizers and high quality seeds are unaffordable to many. New technologies adapted to African conditions are out of reach. Additionally, the scarcity of good road systems hinders a farmer’s ability to get needed inputs to the farm – and bring surplus production to markets.

Dr. Joe DeVries, Program for African Seed Systems for Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), says that the African food crisis has been going on for much longer than the global food crisis, and is the result of low investment in things that are important to African farmers. But he also says that, though separate, the global food crisis and the African food crisis are related crises.

“There has just been far too low a priority given to assisting small-scale farmers who make up the majority of inhabitants of many developing countries, especially in Africa, and this, in the face of continuing population growth, has created a sort of ‘slow burning’ food crisis which has now reached critical levels,” says DeVries.  

“The problem is that while the global food crisis may have abated for now, Africa’s food crisis continues, and will require long-term commitment from donors and governments to correct.”

Since the early 1960s, Africa has gone from being a net food exporter to a net importer, with per capita food production declining as the population growth rate increased. To improve the situation, organizations like AGRA have called for a revolution in agriculture designed to help farmers prosper. This process focuses on two extremely important and connected factors: agricultural sustainability and small-scale farming.

“Smallholder farmers tend to cultivate a wider range of crops – in part because they prefer to eat that way, and in part because it helps them avoid having to pay cash for food in local markets. The farmers AGRA is working with often grow six or seven or more different staple food crops on their small plots of land. By working with smallholder farmers and studying the diversity of crops on their farms we think we are more likely to carry more of that diversity into the future,” says DeVries.

It is this diversity that links small-scale farming to agricultural sustainability. Investing in large-scale farming, says DeVries, tends to gravitate very quickly toward mono-cultures of a narrow set of food crops, which in turn provides fewer nutritional benefits to the community. “Green” farming is yet another crucial goal. However, it is very hard to promote soil conservation and other, greener methods of crop production when the main problem on the farm is that the family is suffering from chronic hunger.

“We are looking at a balanced equation,” he says. “One of increasingly ‘green’ methods of cultivating crops and also increasing the productivity of local farms.”

Although investment in smallholder farms may not be the quickest or easiest way to achieve impact, AGRA feels it is a more socially equitable and nutritionally sound approach than one that focuses solely on large-scale farming. 

The increased diversity of food crops appearing on American grocers’ shelves represents a very positive development as well, giving more opportunities for farmers in developing countries to become part of the global food chain with products that were previously viewed as “ethnic” foods. 

“I also think the fair trade movement still has much to offer smallholder farmers,” says DeVries. “There are a lot of consumers out there who would be willing to pay a slightly higher price for produce that they know has been grown on smallholder farmers’ plots, just as many of them have shown they are willing to pay a slightly higher price for organically grown food.”

Ultimately, says DeVries, the food crisis requires global dedication to enriching the lot of poor farmers. For far too long, he says, the issue of food security has been synonymous with increased food aid.

“The G8 seems to have turned the corner on that point now, and so we expect to see this wave of funding going into much more meaningful and long-lasting investments. We only hope that they will indeed follow up on their promises with new money, and come up with a new resolve to get these funds to the groups who can really create positive change in the lives of Africa’s farmers.”