Chronic Food Crisis: Can We Feed Everyone on Earth?

October 8, 2012
Food Crisis
The issue of global food crisis started in the 2000s and is bound to plague millions more as long as the causes of the problem aren’t tackled.Considering the estimations of the world population growth, experts think that we’ll need to produce twice more food in 2050 than we were at the beginning of the century.

The solutions to this crisis lie in a coherent effort to invest in agricultural technologies and more efficient policies to overhaul the food market in Africa in order to improve productivity and distribution.

GMOs – if controversial in certain cases (health concerns) – have nonetheless showed how they could be shaped to better respect the environment and avoid erosion.Certain crops can be modified to survive extreme climates - such as droughts - and living conditions. But now the challenge is to help developing countries access this technology as much as possible, because the future of hunger and famine in Africa depends upon solving this challenge and increasing agricultural productivity.

Left with not much to eat...

In 2003 there were already 14m people affected by droughts and the first famines of the century. One third of these people were living in areas where the grass pea grows. What’s with grass pea? Well that’s something people eat when there’s nothing else to eat. What’s wrong with that? 

Eating grass pea causes a diseases that basically paralyzes the lower limbs (i.e. your legs).When a famine occurs, that’s hell of a lot of people who end up eating this grass pea. The ratio is fairly small with about 10 out of 1000 people who get the disease. But it’s just one example that food aid should not just focus on lack of food but also on areas where there’s hazardous food. Eating this kind of improper food typically causes all types of deficiencies... at best. Thus hunger leads to malnutrition which in turns leads to diseases.


Food Crisis, Famine and Poverty

food crisis famine poverty
‍The relationship between food crisis, famine & poverty

The recent surges in food prices (3 big rises in the last 6 years) have underlined how the poor are vulnerable to price changes of the most basic element of all: food. For a food price increase of about 50%, the number of people living in extreme poverty rose by 2% in the world, against the current trend of a reduction of this number.

South Asia and Africa: worse off

But behind the numbers, the reality is more contrasted. Poverty hasn’t changed much in Eastern Europe or Latin America, but it got worse from Asia to Africa. To be precise, most of the extreme poverty increase happened in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.Obviously the food crisis affects urban residents the most since farmers will usually benefit from the higher prices (unless they’re being exploited by some landlord that is). In the best of cases, the food crisis causes folks to remain stuck in poverty; in the worst cases it creates massive large-scale food shortages, like the recent famine in Somalia aggravated by the drought.

Unprecedented food crisis - yes, really

The 2008 food crisis saw food prices rise by 40% in Kenya and 80% in Thailand (20% at best elsewhere). The most recent food crisis in 2010-2011 saw prices go up by nearly 300% in Somalia. This led the UN to have an emergency session in Rome in July 2011 to call for $1.6bn in aid to stop the food crisis & famine in Somalia

The Role of the IMF in Food Crises

the need to diversify agriculture in Kenya
Lack of diversified crops in Kenya

In 2002 about 13m people where threatened by the food crisis with 3 millions alone in Malawi depending on foreign aid. Endless, opaque talks about ending corruption in Africa – without saying how – have been pointed as the solution for aid to reach its target population.

From bad to worse (advice)

But what’s worse is that despite obvious failures of liberalization reforms wanted by the IMF in Africa, the international organization keeps on demanding these reforms. And worse than worse (it's redundant okay), the IMF actually told several African countries (e.g. Malawi) to sell their food stocks in order to repay their debts, sometimes right before a major food crisis. Needless to say when the crisis hit, these countries were helpless.

Now in fact what happened is more complex than that. Foreign aid usually comes with strings attached and what the IMF and the EU asked for was a privatization of many national food agencies in Africa. That way their management would be more efficient and avoid worsening the debt.However, one day food prices went up and the IMF insisted that some countries sell a huge part of their grain stock so that they could better repay their debt. The problem is they sold almost everything... 

Was the IMF responsible?

How is that the IMF’s responsibility? These countries know very little to nothing about how markets work. Their experience in stock markets and such is close to none and the IMF’s guidance ought to take that into account. It’s a long process of learning that requires very close assistance. Many nations have gone bankrupt since the advent of capitalism because they didn’t understand too well its mechanisms.So yes the IMF is partly responsible for the food crisis and famine in Africa, notably in Malawi. All that because the IMF hates it when governments interfere with any market: it’s a form of market distortion, right, but hell if you need to survive what’s wrong with a little distortion? 

Interfere with that market if you have to 

China does it, India does it. But they’re too big to say anything. No, worse, Europe and the US have been doing it for centuries in order to protect their own agricultural industries. The US has planned to pay $180bn to protect its farmers (that’s far from any kind of supporting pocket money), and the EU gives $20,000 a year for each one of its farmers. Market distortion you say? This allows the two regions to limit imports from developing countries (which then remain poor) and to sell their own food cheaper than competitors to the third world. This again maintains them in poverty since agriculture is not profitable enough. So… okay if the US and the EU want to protect their own farmers, why not? But why forbid African or Latin American countries to do the same? Why is there only one side that can “cheat”?

International trade liberalization has often worked at the expense of developing countries. Most of them have become more dependent on imports, which makes them even more vulnerable to any food crisis when global prices go up.

Other Causes to the Chronic Food Crisis

causes food crisis in africa
‍The role of foreign aid in the food crisis in Africa

Growth and energy consumption

Economic growth in developing countries puts a pressure on prices because the people and new infrastructures increase the countries' energy consumption (e.g. biofuels and energy needs for production). On the other hand it also means that new opportunities are here: investment in agriculture and its modernization are bound to be pretty profitable, including the emergence of crops for biofuels.However, production in agriculture also depends on the price of energy. So if in the short term increasing production would make prices go down, over the long run prices would still be tied to energy prices. Then consumers of more energetic food (i.e. richer consumers) would appropriate most of the production at the expense of the poorer.

Oil, energy production and food crisis

Production of biofuels itself also competes with production of food, so the best thing to do is to focus the production of biofuel crops on land and climates that don’t usually produce that much food (or with a very low productivity). Until then using biofuels will remain a risky investment since when food prices rise, so will those of biofuels.This shows how the whole problem is closely tied to energy production. Among other things, oil is of course necessary to grow and transport food. Higher oil prices always risk bringing food prices higher. Here's another example of the issues related to biofuels: since the US has planned to produce itself most of the ethanol for its own consumption, it will reduce its maize crops in the entire country. This will make food prices rise worldwide, even if oil prices are low.

Check out this video to better understand the relationship between food production and fossil fuel (i.e. oil):

Modernizing African agriculture

Modern vs. traditional agriculture

The solution to the global food problem and famine in Africa doesn’t lie in a romantic return to traditional agriculture as many argue. 

They’re not imperfect but as the growing population on Earth puts a strain on resources and production, what’s needed is more technology and efficient farming techniques.

It’s not about an all-out war on traditional practices, since intensive production ruins the soils over time but it’s about finding the right balance to produce more in a sustainable way. 

And technology is central to that. The example of China or even the US and Europe shows that big, intensive mass-farming erodes the soils and that farmers should go for mixed farming rather than specialized monoculture.Likewise it’s not about GMOs (genetically modified organism) versus organic crops. 

GMOs can be used to adapt certain crops to extreme weather conditions, or to avoid the use of pesticides. Things have become so specialized that experts need to realize that combining these different areas offer great results in healthy, sustainable food production. Overcoming the food crisis will take the concerted efforts and cooperation of all areas and all knowledge accumulated so far. 

The need for better adapted crops

Solving the food crisis in Africa is precisely about that, all the more considering the variety of micro-climates and need for adapted crops. Most important of all, technology and farming techniques have now given birth to crops that resist to droughts, need less pesticides (i.e. saving money), grow faster and in big quantities. The perfect crops for Africa… as long as it can import them for cheap and make them accessible to small farmers continent-wide.

Subsidies might be needed then to help farmers buy these crops. And we're back to the dilemma of choosing between market distortion or millions of deaths. Quite a choice uh? The whole problem with the food crisis and African agriculture is to increase the productivity of small local farmers. You've got here a good NGO investment to fight poverty in Africa.


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Dario Berrebi

Digital strategist, researcher & filmmaker. 

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