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Africa: Agriculture's Final Frontier

Woman with hoe

The challenge before us was laid out in all its daunting intensity:

Current levels of food production in the world will have to double by the year 2050 if we are to feed a growing population and a population that is growing more prosperous -- along with eliminating the hunger that already plagues 1 billion people. We will have to do that with tight land and water constraints. With little land available for agriculture expansion without destroying the environment, yields of existing fields will necessarily need to double. And with agriculture consuming 70 percent of the fresh water used in the world, farmers will need to triple their “crop per drop” if water supplies aren’t to be exhausted.

That was the scene set by Robert Thom pson, professor emeritus in agriculture policy at the University of Illinois, and other speakers at a sustainable agriculture conference this week in Chicago hosted by chemical company BASF. Despite the enormity of the challenge, there was consensus that the world’s farmers will be up to this task. They always have been in the past, several people noted, particularly given market incentives. It was pointed out that U.S. agriculture essentially doubled its productivity from the end of World War II to the year 2000.

But the pace of agriculture gains in the U.S. and Europe and elsewhere in the developed world has been slowing. So, as we look around the world, where can the needed food increases come from?

Africa. It is agriculture’s final frontier.

The continent that is home to many of the world’s hungry is poised to make the greatest gains in food production. It is in that position because Africa’s agriculture development has been so badly neglected in recent decades. Innovations that have fueled farming booms elsewhere are still rare in Africa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that sub-Saharan Africa as a whole uses less fertilizer than the single country of Bangladesh. Only a small percentage of corn grown on the continent comes from hybrid seeds -- the conventionally bred seeds that have multiplied yields across the developed world. Much of the continent’s water resources -- such as the great Blue Nile River in Ethiopia -- remain underutilized as the vast majority of farms remain rain fed.

Enter the “Feed the Future” initiative of the Obama administration, which seeks to reverse this neglect. Enter the accelerated actions of philanthropies and corporations and humanitarian agencies to end hunger through agriculture development. Enter Africa, a new ally in these efforts. Invest in research, spread the new innovations far and wide, improve the infrastructure. Just one elemental, relatively inexpensive improvement like more and better storage facilities to reduce post-harvest loss -- which in some African countries wastes as much as 40 percent of the harvest -- would be an important addition to the continent’s, and the world’s, food supply.

We have explored the frontiers of space. We are pushing the frontiers of technology and communication. Now we need to boost the productivity of farming’s final frontier. What a great achievement it would be if the farmers we have so neglected come to our aid, if today’s hungry someday help to feed us. A daunting challenge, but doable.

Roger Thurow’s blog post appears courtesy of the Global Food for Thought blog. Thurow, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, is a senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


 

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