December 31, 2016, by Alex Kirby
Harvesting millet in northern Uganda. Image: DFID via Flickr
New research warns it will be almost impossible for African cropland to feed the continent by 2050 without massive changes to farming.
LONDON, 31 December, 2016 – The prospect that Africa’s harvests will be enough to feed all its people by mid-century is remote unless it can make huge improvements in farming on its existing cropland, a new report says.
The authors say the improvements needed will amount to “a large, abrupt acceleration in the rate of yield increase”.
If the continent seeks instead to close the gap between food production and people’s needs by cultivating new areas, they say, this will cause serious damage to wildlife, and higher emissions of greenhouse gases.
They say ways for Africa to avoid this require it to match North American and European standards of agricultural efficiency − a dauntingly difficult task implying an improvement of 60% in the next 30 years − or to find the money to pay for grain imports.
They suggest a different answer to help to close the gap: not just more efficient but also more intensive agriculture in already-farmed areas.
The latest study simply reinforces growing concern that Africa faces a very hungry future from extreme weather through the direct impacts of climate change, or the sheer speed of its onset, or because of population growth – or from a perfect storm of all these threats together.
The report, published in the PNAS journal, is the work of a team of researchers from Wageningen University and Research (WUR) in the Netherlands, several African institutes, and the University of Nebraska, US.
By 2050, when Africa’s population is likely to be two-and-a half-times more than now, the continent will scarcely be able to continue growing enough food for everyone, the report says,
African cropland yields
Even if farmers can achieve much higher yields on all current African cropland, further expansion into uncultivated areas is likely to be needed.
This will be very risky, because of the biodiversity loss and increased greenhouse gas emissions it will cause from clearing forests and converting land for agriculture.
Farm yields per hectare in sub-Saharan Africa are currently low. For example, the maize yield is only 20% of what it could be with good management, whereas the yield in the Netherlands or the US is 80% of the potential.
Although extensive farming now satisfies most of Africa’s appetite for grain, the projected growth of its population will mean demand rises by 3.4 times by 2050. By then, self-sufficiency on existing African cropland will be possible only if yields can also reach 80% of their potential.
During the last decade, the maize yield per hectare has been less than two tonnes, with a very small annual increase − about 30 kg per hectare. In 2050, the yield per hectare will need to be about seven tonnes, and that means farmers will have to achieve an annual increase of 130 kg, starting now.
“You still hear people say that Africa can become
one of the world’s major grain baskets.
But it may be very challenging for Africa
even to remain self-sufficient”
Lead researcher Martin van Ittersum, professor in the Plant Production Systems group at WUR, says there were other possible routes to maintaining self-sufficiency. Growing several crops a year and expanding the irrigated area of farmland could increase yields, but these are options that come with many uncertainties.
If they fail, the report says, major expansions of farmland will be needed, with their inevitable risks for the natural world and the climate.
The other possibility, relying on grain imports, would require enormous quantities of food shipments, and would have to be paid for with scarce foreign exchange.
One of the researchers, Professor Abdullahi Bala, of the Federal University of Technology in Minna, Nigeria, says the area needed for expanding cropland is simply not available in some countries.
Professor van Ittersum adds: “You still hear people say that Africa can become one of the world’s major grain baskets. But it may be very challenging for Africa even to remain self-sufficient in the future.”
Another member of the research team, Dr Kindie Tesfaye, a scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Ethiopia, believes that farming on African cropland must rapidly be made more intensive.
Improved market access
He says improved yields depend on options such as grain varieties adapted to local conditions, improved plant fertilisation, and control of diseases and pests, including parasitic plants.
The researchers also urge improved market access, especially for smallholders, and better transport, infrastructure, farm loans and insurance.
They collected data from 10 countries – Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia − which together account for 54% of sub-Saharan Africa’s people and 58% of its cropland. The researchers mapped the production of, and demand for, five major grains – maize, millet, rice, sorghum and wheat.
They think it is unlikely that the prospects in other African countries are any better, because the availability of arable land per capita is slightly lower there.
Alex Kirby is a former BBC journalist and environment correspondent. He now works with universities, charities and international agencies to improve their media skills, and with journalists in the developing world keen to specialise in environmental reporting.