/ 21 September 2018

Food insecurity rising in Africa

Wheat and other food staples such as rice and maize are under threat from climate change.
Wheat and other food staples such as rice and maize are under threat from climate change. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

A third of all people living in sub-Saharan Africa face severe food insecurity. They do not have enough money, or the resources to grow food, and regularly go for more than a day without food.

The bad news is the situation is getting worse. Of the just under a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa, 230-million were undernourished last year, an increase of 10-million from 2016. That’s also an increase of 25-million since 2014.

That’s according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation. Its State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report has become an annual marker of how the world is dealing with feeding its nearly eight billion people. The 2018 edition, released last week, makes for grim reading.

“New evidence continues to signal a rise in world hunger and a reversal of trends after prolonged decline.” Last year, the number of undernourished people worldwide increased from 804-million to 821-million.

At fault is a combination of conflict, climate variability and weather extremes, according to the UN report. The latter two have occurred because the world has warmed by 0.8˚C in the last century. This is changing the weather patterns that farmers and herders rely on. Predictability is key to growing enough food to feeding your family and climate change is removing that predictability.

The UN report mentions farmers in the Afram Plains region of Ghana, where the rainy season is arriving later than usual. That means a shorter growing season. But heatwaves and heavy rains in the middle of the growing season are damaging crops. So farmers either lose their crop or have to live off lower yields.

Changes in rainfall are a particular problem on the African continent. Some 80% of farmers and herders rely on rainfall. When it doesn’t rain, crops and cattle die. This point was harshly proven during the 2015-2016 El Niño, when drought cracked open the soil across the southern half of the continent.

In developed countries, water is collected in dams and then sent to farms through irrigation networks, providing a steady supply of water throughout the year and a buffer for years when it doesn’t rain.

A growing population also means more people are farming in marginal areas; up the sides of mountains and in areas where the soil is too poor to last many seasons. This is accelerating desertification and has resulted in the Sahara and Kalahari deserts expanding, thus reducing farmland.

Farmers are far less resilient when weather shocks come along. In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, those shocks are usually droughts. But climate change means people have to deal with more climate extremes— such as floods and droughts — at the same time and more regularly. The UN report says the occurrence of three or more different climate extremes at the same time has increased by 160%. This means farmers are facing a new norm where floods and drought are all happening during the same time that the growing season is shortened.

When crops fail, countries have to import critical foodstuffs,such as maize, wheat and rice, which pushes the prices up. People then have less to spend on other important foods like vegetables.

Globally, while the number of undernourished people is 821-million, another 672-million people are obese.

Children are hardest hit by these dietary problems. The report says one- and two-year-old children in Zimbabwe, who lived through the recent El Niño drought, have a “significantly lower growth velocity compared to children of the same age living in areas with average rainfall”. This results in children being stunted, giving them a lifelong physical disadvantage.

Nearly 10-million children on the continent are overweight but this does not necessarily mean they are receiving the nutrients needed for a healthy diet.

With global temperatures increasing —and little in the way of progress in efforts to lower the carbon emissions that drive those increases —the UN report says countries have to focus on being more resilient. Key to this is in adopting irrigated agriculture and changing the types of crops people grow.

That will give subsistence farmers breathing space during droughts, and help them to grow crops that can survive harsher climates.