In the past, Celina Cossa would queue for days and even nights just to get the chance to buy a bag of maize to feed her two children, her husband, and herself. She was one of thousands of Mozambican women finding it difficult to feed her family in a country that was newly independent from its Portuguese colonisers and in the midst of a civil war. Food shortages in Mozambique in the 1980s were a norm, and many – especially women – were extremely poor.
Two veteran Wall Street Journal reporters, Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, have teamed up to write a book addressing one of the most pressing questions of the 21st-century: global hunger.
The authors ask why hunger persists when the technology and tools already exist to feed the world:
Since the time of the Green Revolution, the world has known how to end famine and tame chronic hunger. We have the information and tools. But we haven’t done it. We explored the heavens. We wired the world for the Internet…. Yet somehow we haven’t eliminated the most primitive scourge of all.
In the opening chapters, Kilman and Thurow introduce the work of Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Prize-winning plant scientist who died on Saturday at the age of 95. Back in the 1940s, Borlaug was assigned to a newly launched research centre in Mexico to train Mexican scientists how to boost farm productivity through plant breeding experiments.
Over the next two decades, Borlaug’s research helped boost wheat yields in the research areas almost seven-fold, from 11 bushels per acre in the early 1940s to as much as seventy-five bushels per acre in 1960. Borlaug then travelled elsewhere in the Americas and across to Asia to demonstrate the potential yields which these new varieties could produce and to convince policymakers and farmers to adopt them to feed their growing populations. (Apparently, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ripped up her flower garden to plant the new wheat varieties.)
And thus, the Green Revolution was born. Demographic projections of mass famine and a population implosion were prevented, and the global supply of food exploded.
Yet around the same time, shifts in global agricultural policy began to shift. Starting in the early 1980s, newly independent former colonies in Africa and Asia started to see a reversal in the foreign assistance being given to agricultural development (inputs, infrastructure, extension training, and research support). In addition, the money being targeted at the alleviation of hunger came in the food of foreign-grown food aid shipped into areas of need.
A generation later, in the summer of 2008, the world went through a global food crisis where prices doubled and tripled for many staple foods and global reserve stocks of grain were reduced to dangerously low levels. Kilman and Thurow argue that the time is right for a broad reinvestment into agriculture, similar to how the United States rallied to support the Marshall Plan for Europe in the aftermath of World War II.
The authors argue that public sentiment is in favour of increased support to feed the hungry, and social and political stability are increasingly under threat from those without sufficient resources to subsist. They present a range of options, from investment in infrastruture and new seed technologies to policy reforms relating to how national budgets are allocated and how trade regulations are drawn up.
Africa is a particular target as it is seen as “the world’s final frontier of agriculture” where yields are still low and modern agricutural practices are often non-existent. Coupled with a rapidly increasingly population, African farmers will be expected to double their production by 2030 in order to simply meet their own people’s food demands. This will be no small feat, and it would require a coordinated, collaborative approach to see it through successfully.
Can Africa transform itself from an agricultural basket case to the world’s bread basket?
This is the question which Peter Hazell tries to address in a recent article written for the Guardian newspaper.
Hazell discusses how the Green Revolution, which introduced modern agricultural practices and technologies to the developing world, helped Asia and South America to eradicate (for the most part) hunger from within their populations. Yet most of the African continent and its farmers have not benefitted from an equivalent revolution, and the productivity of their harvests has remained stagnant over the past half century while populations have been rapidly increasing and climate change is causing a less reliable supply of food.
In fact, local access for African farmers is still low. Historically, African governments have committed much less than their Asian counterparts in funding agriculture. Hazell estimates that Africa has spent around 5% or 6% of total government spending over the past 40 years while Asia has spent 15% or more over the same period. At the same time, foreign donors have, until recently, neglected agriculture as a development priority for their funding allocations.
There are indications that this is changing. African leaders have committed to increased funding to 10% of budgets and world leaders have earmarked money for investing in rural infrastructure support among other actions. As an example, the G8 just committed to $20 billion in funding at their July summit in Italy.
This momentum makes Hazell believe that
if supported, millions of poor farmers could lift themselves out of poverty and… it [Africa] could provide a solution to the global food shortages and spiraling food prices we are all facing.
In a speech at a recent conference of the International Association of Agricultural Economists, Chinese Vice premier Hui Liangyu called for a continued global focus on agricultural production, according to a Xinhua article, especially in light of the fact that increased demand and resource constraints put pressure on global supplies:
Pressure is mounting to ensure food safety worldwide, especially effective food supply for developing countries, as global population has been snowballing and more agricultural products are being turned into energy.
Calling this effort “the world’s common task”, Hui discussed how China’s agricultural production has evolved since Deng Xiaoping opened up China’s economy to market forces in 1978. He also outlined some of the next steps that China intends to take to further promote its farmers:
In the new situation [sic], China will further strengthen rural system construction, develop modern agriculture, promote rural public causes ad push forward new countryside construction.
Agriculture-related activity is responsible for around 70% of freshwater use. Here are some other interesting facts from the report:
- Less than 3% of the world’s water is freshwater. Of this freshwater supply, about five-sixths is frozen and thus inaccessible.
- Almost 97% of the available freshwater is stored in underground aquifers, with the remainder coming from rainfall, natural lakes, rivers, and other man-made facilities.
- Fewer than 10 countries possess 60% of the world’s available freshwater supply: Brazil, Russia, China, Canada, Indonesia, U.S., India, Columbia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- Globally, roughly 15-35% of irrigation withdrawals for agriculture are estimated to be unsustainable. Susceptible regins include the western U.S., northern India and Pakistan, northern China, eastern South Africa, southeastern Australia, and parts of the Mediterranean.
- India, China, and Egypt all use more than 80% of their freshwater for irrigation, compared to about 1% in the UK.
- 1.8 million people die every year from diarrhoeal diseases (including cholera)– the equivalent of 15 killer tsunamis each year or 12 Boeing 747 crashes every day.
- U.S. average annual domestic consumption of water (per capita) is 215 cubic metres per year, 6.7 times the average in China and more than double the average in France.
- Important trends impacting water use in the future include population growth, increasing global affluence, and climate change.