The world’s first famine in six years has just been declared in parts of the war-torn South Sudan, which is threatening the lives of a million people. Yemen, Somalia and North-East Nigeria are also facing severe food shortages. The United Nations says a total of 20 million people are at risk of starvation and is urgently seeking $4 billion to avert the crisis. Civil wars and political instability in South Sudan, Yemen and Somalia - and Boko Haram violence in North-East Nigeria - are major contributing factors to the crisis.
Not so long ago, hunger was a global phenomenon, unbound by geography. In 1918, the New York Times reported about the “hunger map of Europe”. Russia, Poland and Finland were under severe famine conditions, not dissimilar from South Sudan today or what Ethiopia went through in 1985 that gave birth to “Live Aid” and Bob Geldof’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”. Much of the rest of Europe faced serious food shortages too.
Famine at a global scale has largely been subdued, though not entirely defeated - and remained concentrated in parts of Asia and Africa. Hunger ceased to be a global phenomenon in the 1960s and 1970s when the use of modern agricultural farming methods spread to Asia and Latin America. Subsequent decades saw increased agricultural productivity as the green revolution took hold. The result has been remarkable: In 1970, just over one in four people around the world went to bed hungry. Today that number is about one in nine people.
That incredible progress was made possible because humans figured out how to produce more food on less land. For most of human history, expanding agricultural production meant tearing down forests and tilling soil on grasslands. Today, not anymore.
From 1960 to 2000, even as global population doubled, FAO estimates show that access to nutrition improved markedly while the prices of the world’s main food staples - rice, wheat and maize - fell by about 60 percent. Malthusian predictions of catastrophic mass starvation proved wrong, not because population growth stopped growing, but because humans outgrew it with increased efficiency in food production. Overall, green revolution enabled global food supply to exceed demand.
If it weren't for the green revolution, a billion people might have died of famine. To feed over 7.3 billion people today would be impossible without advances in agricultural technology and green revolution, and would require us to destroy forests and grasslands, and wreck havoc on nature and biodiversity - just like our ancestors did. Thankfully it didn’t come to that, on the contrary, global cultivated land per capita has declined from 0.44 ha per person in early 1960s to less than 0.25 ha per in 2013. As a result, countries like India tripled its wheat yields in three decades, essentially avoiding what many feared was an imminent famine. Mexico pioneered high-yielding, rust-resistant strains of wheat which increased production by an estimated six times from 1950 to 1970.
At the same time, World Health Organization data shows that calorie intake per person per day increased by about 582 kcal globally and by 796 kcal per capita per day in developing countries. Some of that calorie intake surplus is now posing new health challenges, such as obesity; an outcome that is as mind-boggling today as it was preposterous a century ago.
Despite this remarkable progress, 795 million people will go to bed hungry today. The same way we could not have fed most of the world’s population today with the same old agricultural technology of the 1960s; we should not expect to feed an extra 2 billion people by 2050 - many of whom will be middle class and demand more meat - with today’s technology. To decrease this number, and to meet the challenge of feeding an expected 9 billion in 2050, we need to keep increasing yields on less land and adapt crops to changing weather patterns.
Africa is of particular interest because agricultural productivity there is lowest- about half of the global average - while harboring 60% of global uncultivated arable land. If Africa could close that “productivity gap”, it could feed itself and export the surplus to the rest of the world. Africa’s economic future depends on success in agriculture, which in turn depends on empowering smallholder farmers (with less than two hectares) - who constitute about 80% of all farms - to increase productivity by adopting modern farming methods.
To be clear, Africa’s food production has been on the rise over the past few decades. But that increase was largely due on cultivating more land and deploying more additional labor force. What is needed is increasing crop yields on existing farmland, which is generally achieved by improving the efficiency of factors of production.
Increased agricultural productivity would not only feed people but also create much-needed jobs and help in reducing poverty levels. Agriculture employs the majority of Africa’s labor force, while contributing only a third to its GDP. Transforming the sector from subsistence-based agriculture to commercial agriculture for smallholder farmers presents huge economic opportunities.
Farmers must have access to and adoption of locally-relevant high-yield, drought-resistant seeds; use irrigation systems as weather patterns change and access affordable fertilizers. These inputs have proved to drastically improve productivity but require more investment in agricultural research. Infrastructures to transport produce from fields to markets would also need to be upgraded, as would storage systems. These are difficult tasks to accomplish, given that smallholder farmers in rural areas have low purchasing power and even lower use of technology. It may take years, if not decades, to put in place but will be critical for feeding tomorrow’s population.