Sunday, October 16, 2011

9 billion people by 2050; can we feed them?

On #WorldFoodDay which coincides with Blog Action Day 2011, #BAD11, it is only fair that we talk about food. Our population is increasing rapidly, but without a much needed corresponding increase in food production. While the UN estimates the world population would hit over 9 billion by 2050, food production is required to increase by over 70% of the 2006 levels meet this growing population.

It is therefore important that a critical look be taken at the current methodologies in food production, distribution, and consumption, especially in developing economies. Most of such economies have a greater percentage of their active labour force involved in agriculture. In Ghana, the percentage is around 56, while it is a whopping 70% in Mali. Within such economies, the majority of the farmers are smallholder farmers who do not have the might to stand against the challenges that confront them in their business. Among the many problems and challenges, these are dominant: inadequate access to land, lack of capital, and inadequate information and extension services. Crop failure, low yields and general food shortages are the resulting incidents. World over, this has created an unhealthy imbalance of food scarcity in the developing world and food over-abundance in the developed world.

Food production
Generally, in spite of the fact that emerging economies have the greater section of the labour force actively engaged in agriculture, food production is low. Most countries in Africa especially import food from other nations, even for commodities that are cultivated in their countries. The world is currently witnessing a food crisis in Somalia and it is interesting to note that most of the food aid is not from Africa.

Inadequate access to land
This problem exists mostly for women farmers who by the culture in some developing countries are marginalized as far as property is concerned. Customary laws of access to land are discriminatory in most cases. Whereas it may appear there is vast untouched land available for food production, the real situation is that this land either not suitable for farming purposes or that these  smallholder farmers do not have the means to acquire additional parcels of land or even cultivate the entire portion of their lands. Sometimes, there is a disconnect between those who own the land and those who are willing to enter into commercial food production. The rural poor usually have larger tracts of land but are unable to cultivate.

Lack of capital
Over time, the trend of low returns on the business of these smallholder farmers has created a poverty cycle that has left farmers with very small capital. Smallholder farmers generally not much educated and do not have the means to attract labourers or purchase farm inputs that could have improved their food production. The low returns have also driven the youth especially away from farming. Jayne et al. (2002) indicate that the ratio of land under crop cultivation to agricultural population has been shrinking gradually but consistently in Africa. Following from the issue of inadequate access to land, Jayne et al. (2002) conclude that the shrinking trend suggests that it will be increasingly difficult for farming alone to sustain the livelihoods of land-constrained households without substantial shifts in labour from agriculture to non-farm sectors. The cost of farm inputs and seedlings continues to be a burden on farmers and a hindrance to would-be ones.

To be able to feed 9 billion people, more capital must be injected into the agric sector. Ghana has been fortunate to have an Agricultural Development Bank, but its contributions have been insignificant. I believe it’s time private investors took the industry seriously as they have done for the ICT industry.

Lack of information and extension services
All these emerging countries have ministries with the sole responsibility of improving food production. In Ghana, the ideal ratio of extension agent to farmers should be about 400 to agents to 1500 farmers. The Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) in Ghana has indicated that only 56% of the entire agricultural operational areas are covered by extension services; and agent-farmer ratio is 1 to 1800. Smallholder farmers need information such as land preparation, planting, agro-chemical application, harvesting and storage techniques. Without such information they are able to manage their farms well and are either left with crop failures or low yields.

An Accenture report, commissioned by Vodafone, has indicated that a potential $138 billion addition to developing world farmers’ incomes would be achieved by 2020. “The report, ‘Connected Agriculture’, concludes that 80% of the potential $138 billion uplift in emerging market farmers' incomes will be derived from the growth of: 
  • mobile money transfer systems, such as Vodafone M-PESA, which provide farmers with the ability to exchange, save and borrow small amounts of capital as well as take out short-term insurance policies;
  • mobile information services providing detailed and localised weather forecasts, crop prices and resource management information; and
  • helpline services giving real-time guidance on issues such as pest control and the challenges linked to climate change, including water scarcity. 

Thus, the efforts of companies like Esoko must be fully welcomed by all. As Africa’s leading mobile market information exchange, the company enables farmers to receive commodity prices from different markets within the country the farmers are based. In Ghana alone, Esoko sends SMS alerts covering 38 markets. While delivering crop prices, and other great tools to the agro-business industry, the company is also working tirelessly at creating a helpline service as described by the Connected Agriculture report. There have been many success stories already reported about efforts of Esoko. Read one of them here.

Food Distribution
I really am not an expert on this subject, but sniffing around for information every now and then has only enlightened me about how poor developing economies do in this area.

In my last post I recollected my experience travelling through some rural farming communities in Ghana. As in many other African countries, I suppose, road networks to the main farming communities are the poorest. While inhabitants of the cities cry over shortage of food, farmers in the rural areas cry over their inability to send their produce to markets, due to bad transportation networks. The few traders who are able to go to these areas with their trucks and purchase from the farmers end up cheating the farmers; if they do not accept low prices, their goods will rot away. Either way, smallholder farmers only get poorer. If these economies would take development in complementary sectors of the nation's economy seriously, I’m pretty sure we can make some good gains against 2050, and most importantly, now! These concerted efforts between the private and public sectors of the economies of these emerging markets perhaps are the key ways through which we can achieve increases in food productivity.

Food consumption
And this is where we all like most. I love food, I’m sure you do too. In this area I can only talk about changing our attitudes and mind sets. I believe there is so much food waste going around in our homes and eating places. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines food waste as food losses occurring during the retail and final consumption stage due to the behavior of retailers and consumers – that is, the throwing away of food. “Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted, according to an FAO-commissioned study. According to the study, in developed countries much food – about 100 kilograms (220 lb) per person and year – is wasted at the consumption stage. In low-income countries, most loss occurs during production.

Planning or food purchases could reduce this problem. We should all know that that throwing food away needlessly is unacceptable, the study advised.  When you are throwing away food, think that someone somewhere is hungry. "Given the limited availability of natural resources, it is more effective to reduce food losses than increase food production in order to feed a growing world population". 

So on this #WorldFoodDay and #BAD11, I can only hope that by 2050 we can feed the world. But until then save #food and stay #green.
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