Oxfam: Africa can produce the food it needs

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The number of people who go hungry in Africa’s poorest countries is growing despite advances in food production, say Oxfam researchers who urge European donors and African governments to invest more in small farms and give rural people a bigger stake in decision-making.

A new report by the global anti-poverty group says more than 230 million people – or one-in-four Africans living south of the Sahara – are undernourished, up 38% from 20 years ago.

Though Oxfam cites big improvements in food availability and nutritional health in many African countries, it says access to land and underinvestment in the farm sector keep too many people in grinding poverty.

The findings are largely supported by international organisations concerned about food security on the rapidly growing continent. The European Commission’s research arm, for example, will soon publish an atlas that shows land and soil degradation pose a threat to food production in Africa.

“More prominence should be given to the agricultural sector because that’s where the majority of the people live and that’s where the majority of the people get their income,” said Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, who heads Oxfam’s research team in Britain. “And once you improve their income, they will also improve their food security situation.”

Fuentes-Nieva contends Africa can produce the food it needs to reduce hunger and improve nutrition, if the farm sector gets the right help through national and international policies.

Getting to market

But studies show that underinvestment in research, training, irrigation and storage hinder farm productivity in the African sub-continent. Poor roads mean farmers can’t get goods to markets, undermining the fight against hunger and the livelihoods of growers.

Just 4.9% of the overall €100 billion in global development aid went to support agricultural production in 2011, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in a report released last month, called for ramping up agricultural investment in developing nations to provide jobs and feed a sub-Saharan population that is forecast to grow from 860 million today to nearly 2 billion by 2050.

The FAO points out that average global farm production has declined since the 1960s and that threats to land quality and freshwater could further erase gains in food output.

Some 850 million of the world’s 7 billion people are classified as hungry, UN figures show. In the African sub-continent, 31% of people are considered malnourished, up from 29% at the start of the century.

EU researchers examine soil threats

Researchers at the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) say that land degradation in sub-Saharan Africa hurts the region’s ability to feed its growing population. The JRC is preparing a soil atlas – similar to one already published on Europe - to help shed light on land productivity challenges.

Though Africa is rich in ecosystem diversity, only about 10% of the continent has naturally fertile soils for growing food crops but poor management practices threaten even those areas.

“Soil and land are absolutely fundamental to food security, to well-being, to poverty-reduction and all the rest of the sustainable development goals,” said Alan Belward of the JRC’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability in Ispra, Italy.

It is not just an African problem but Europe is losing productive land to sprawl. “We’re taking really good productive soils and then were putting a car park on them, or a new road or a new housing estate. That’s not treating it [the land] properly,” said Belward, who part of the team producing the African soil atlas.

His colleague Arwyn Jones, another JRC researcher, said erosion, poor farming methods, land clearance and declining forest land in Africa are leading “to the soil being washed away, pollution [and] buildup of salts in irrigated land.”

Exporting opportunity

Meanwhile, researchers fear that more and more African land is being shifted from cultivation for local consumption to production for export crops.

Investors from the Middle East, Asia and Europe are tapping Africa’s cheap land and labour to supplement their own commodity production while giving governments of poor nations lucrative export revenue. The EU alone imports 40% of sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural exports

The Oakland Institute, a think tank in California, estimates that African land equal to the size of France has been leased or sold to foreign governments or investors since 2008 for commodity and biofuel exports. It warns that “displacement and affected livelihoods are becoming serious sources of international concern.”

Some African governments that banked on investors to create jobs and revenue have acknowledged that the land deals have hurt small farmers, by driving them off productive land or sapping their water supplies. Starting this month, Tanzania scaled back the amount of land foreign investors can lease, and several other African governments are reviewing their agricultural leasing policies.

Fuentes-Nieva, who is preparing a forthcoming Oxfam report on the so-called land-grabbing by foreigners, said weak governance in Africa is partly to blame for the land leases and inadequate investment in agriculture, despite the prominence farming plays in rural employment and economic growth.

“The long-term trend was one of neglect of the agricultural sector and the explanation that we found – and it’s kind of an old explanation but it still rings true – is that national governments were responding to the interests of urban groups which were the ones that were closer to the government, the ones that had a voice with the government,” Fuentes-Nieva said.

“And the rural sector was basically not being represented in the decision-making process.”

Positions: 

Among the conclusions of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012 were that “soil and land are so fundamentally important to sustainable development that we want to strive for a land-degradation neutral world," said Alan Belward of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre.

"But that incapsulates the fact that soil and land are absolutely fundamental to food to food security, to well-being, to poverty-reduction and all the rest of the sustainable development goals. And we fully support that point of view and we are absolutely convinced that soil and land are poorly recognised.”

Timeline: 
  • By February: European Commission's Joint Research Centre due to publish its African soil atlas
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