Last Tuesday, a food summit aimed at raising awareness about food security and safeguarding the ecological foundations that support production was held in Nairobi.
The same day, the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) launched a report, Avoiding Future Famines: Strengthening the Ecological Foundation of Food Security through Sustainable Food Systems to coincide with the World Food Day.
These series of events were not just a coincidence. Experts have pointed out that with food prices spiking in Africa and elsewhere, horrific media scenes of Africans dying of hunger will not go away anytime soon unless the correct measures are put in place.
The most recent worst food disaster on record was the 1994 famine in Ethiopia, which left thousands dead. However, years down the line, there seems to be no end of these kind of sad narratives. Last year, Kenya experienced its worst drought in six decades forcing the citizenry to raise funds for the starving, which put some 3.5 million lives at risk. It was a situation replicated in the wider Horn of Africa.
This year’s Global Hunger Index report indicated that sub-Saharan Africa continues to face the highest levels of starvation with Burundi at position 79, last with a global index score of 37.1. Eritrea and Haiti closely followed in the second and third position respectively with a score of 34.4 and 30.8.
According to the report, hunger still poses a challenge due to lack of sustainable food security.
About 20 countries are having alarming levels of hunger on a global scale with Africa bearing the brunt even as a new Oxfam report, Our Land, Our Lives points out that interest in the continent’s land is on the rise as rich countries try to secure their own food supplies.
The report, released on October 4, states that an area equivalent to the size of Kenya had been sold off in Africa to global investors over the past decade in order to facilitate the growing of biofuel and commercial crops. This leads to degradation of natural resources, affecting the ecosystem at a time starvation is on the rise.
This means that achieving food security will remain elusive in most countries if the ecosystem is ignored since environment supports agriculture going by the two reports. The Unep study roots for a green economy, calling for food production and consumption practices that ensure productivity without disrupting the ecosystem.
“Environment supports agriculture in terms of natural resources such as fertile land and adequate supplies of freshwater and through planet’s ecosystem services such as the nutrient recycling and soil stabilisation provided by forests and biodiversity, including pollination services by insects such as bees,” UN under secretary-general, and Unep executive director Achim Steiner says in the report.
In Zambia, for instance, deforestation and conventional agricultural practices like chitemene farming, which involves the cutting down all the trees to pave the way for farmlands, has led to soil degradation. Successive governments have launched campaigns against the indiscriminate cutting of trees though their efficacy is yet to be ascertained.
Other factors that contribute to food insecurity in the continent are expensive farming inputs and poor access to loan facilities. The Zambian government recently pleaded with local banks to reduce their lending rates, a call they are backing.
Farmers in Kenya and other parts of the continent have also echoed this concern. In Botswana, the case is not any different as statistics indicate that the country gets an average of 50 days of rain per year thus affecting the country’s ability to attain food security, forcing it to import maize.
This confirms an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that by 2020, potential rain-fed crop yields could fall by up to 50 per cent in some African countries.
The scenario is the same in Mozambique where drought and soil infertility have been blamed on slash-and-burn (shifting cultivation) agriculture. The country’s Environment ministry is drafting a plan to mitigate climate change as its Agriculture counterpart introduces new drought resistant seeds. Maputo is also plans to roll out a campaign to educate farmers.
In Kenya, the government last week announced during the third National Agricultural Sector Development Forum in Nairobi that the role of smallholder farmers in sustainable food production is receiving more attention in the light of environmental degradation, resource scarcity and climate change, yet another proof that agriculture can no longer be separated from the environment.
The report by Unep also noted that more than 20 per cent of cultivated land globally has decreasing productivity due to degradation thus the ecological foundation of agriculture is being undermined. These results from competition for water to meet new irrigation demands and the scramble for land to plant bio-energy crops.
Moreover, it is not only farming lands under threat but the marine ecosystem as well which results from overfishing, loss of coastal habitats like mangroves and coral reefs. Environmentalists have raised the alarm, warning that the world could lose up to 70 per cent of its coral reefs by 2050. Global eating habits have also been blamed for food insecurity, as meat and dairy products consumption increase. More land and water is required to produce meat than grains and fruits, according to the study.
Since agriculture remains the backbone of most African countries and the largest employer, it should pay off in helping achieve a food-secure world.
This calls for dealing with food availability, access, utilisation and stability to make agriculture more sustainable in an environmentally sound way that would lead to a greener and more hunger-free Africa.
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