Africa: Our Future Bread-Basket

More than one in seven people in the world go hungry, despite there being enough food produced to adequately feed all. With world’s population expected to expand to more than nine billion by 2050, global food production will need to increase by 70-100 percent. This means that more food will have to produced on the same amount of land and with less water.

The US, Brazil, China and India have all become major producers in the world, but there is little that can be done to increase production in these countries. As such, more and more attention is being turned to Africa, what Robert Thurow calls in his article in Foreign Affairs, “The Fertile Continent.” In this article, he argues that agricultural production could grow exponentially if farmers used existing technology such as hybrid seeds and modern irrigation systems.

A primary reason agriculture in Africa is underdeveloped today is its comparative advantage in terms of labor. When production in the US lowered prices of staple grains, African farmers could not compete. Thus African governments turned their attention and funds away from farmers and focused on manufacturing, taking advantage of cheap labor. This resulted in imported crops displacing locally grown foods in the developing world.

Then came the global food crisis of 2008. Between 2007 and 2008, global grain reserves fell to their lowest levels in three decades, and the prices of staple products rose exponentially. Suddenly, the food that developing countries had been importing for cheap prices became too expensive and even to scarce.

The way out, many governments and international actors have realized, is to develop agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2009, G-8 countries pledged $22 billion to agricultural development in the world’s poorest countries. Developing infrastructure that is common elsewhere such as farm-to-market roads and crop-storage facilities is essential on a continent where one third to one half of harvested crops are routinely spoiled. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, if a green revolution were to ignite in Africa, agricultural output could increase from the current value of $280 billion to $880 billion.

Naturally, a lot needs to change for such results. Not a single green revolution, but one for each ecological zone and each staple crop would be needed, as well as political and social stability in each region. But it is becoming increasingly clear that it is in every nation’s interest to develop agriculture in Africa. The continent that was once the biggest receiver of food aid must now rise to the task of feeding a growing world.

This blog post was based off the article entitled “The Fertile Continent” by Robert Thurow, which appeared in the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs.


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