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Act Now to Avert Food Crisis

IN Zimbabwe almost every aspect of our lives has a political dimension.  

Hardly surprising since it is the politicians and politics that have brought so much misery and stress into the lives of so many of us.

This preoccupation with politics has crowded out a looming threat that will exceed the damage done to our lives by politicians.  I am referring to the global food crisis.  It is in our part of the world, sub-Saharan Africa, that 25% of the world’s hungriest people live.

This statistic indicates that as a region we are already in a food deficit situation. It is projected that the population of sub-Saharan Africa will increase by a further 250 million by year 2030.

If this forecast proves correct and the region is unable to increase food production then the present crisis will become a catastrophe.

For the past decade in times of scarcity the region has been helped out by developed countries drawing down and shipping to us part of their accumulated surpluses.  Over time the region has come to rely on these handouts to feed the hungry.

Don’t run away with the idea that the developed world was motivated only by a spirit of magnanimity.

Generosity and concern for the hungry played a role but stockpiles cost money to warehouse and finance. In the UK and USA surpluses had become an embarrassment, so much so that the governments paid farmers to take land out of production; it was called the set aside scheme.


These halcyon days of plenty are over.   Grain production now struggles to keep up with consumption causing stockpiles to dwindle.

In 2007 the world saw global carryover stocks fall to 61 days of global consumption.

The global food crisis is not going away any time soon.   Pressure on grain stocks will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.

Population increase is inexorable; today there are more than six billion people on the planet, by year 2050 it is projected this figure will rise to over nine billion.

Unless world grain production can keep pace with the increased number of mouths to be fed it is inevitable that pressure on grain stocks will continue and prices will keep rising.

Agricultural productivity growth is only one to 2% per year.  This growth will not be sufficient to feed all these extra people.   Unless more land goes under the plough hunger and starvation is bound to increase.
As the price of fossil fuels rises so will the demand for alternate forms of energy.

Biofuels are one of these alternatives and are being produced in ever increasing volumes. The feedstocks for these fuels are, in the main, sugarcane, palm oil and corn (maize).

All these sources are land-based so they are in competition with grain that is intended for human consumption. This means that grain prices will be tied to the price of oil.    While the price of oil will fluctuate the trend line will continue to go up.

Climate change must be factored in when calculating grain production in the future.  It is difficult to predict with any precision how production will be effected.   Generally speaking it is expected the lives of grain producers will become less predictable and more hazardous.

As developing economies such as China, India, Brazil and others mainly from the Far East become wealthier their citizens will expect a higher standard of living.  One of their demands will be for a higher proportion of meat and meat products in their diet.

Much of the pork, poultry and beef is reared intensively on a grain-based diet.   Converting grain into meat in order to supplement the human diet is an inefficient way of consuming grain.

It takes about 6kg of corn to produce 1kg of pork.   The Chinese are keen meat eaters, as they climb the food ladder half the world’s pigs are now produced in China.

Per capita pork consumption since 1993 has risen from 53lb per year to 77lb today.    I give these figures as an illustration of why annual worldwide grain consumption has risen from 815 million metric tonnes in 1960 to 2,16 billion in 2008.

On the food front the outlook for all of us who live in sub-Saharan Africa is bleak.

The structure of our agriculture is poor, our productivity is poor, our conservation is poor — by every measurable criterion we are below par.   All governments in the region must bear the blame for this abysmal performance. Agriculture is largely in the hands of subsistence farmers, therefore investment is almost non-existent, the profit motive is all but absent.   So far we have muddled through but only with help from the developed countries.

We would be remiss to take a sanguine view of what we face in the future.   Some serious thinking and planning needs to take place right now while there is time. It can be done because we in Zimbabwe have done it already; we were food-secure and self-sufficient until the land reform programme left our agriculture in ruins.

Bruce Gemmill is a former commercial farmer interested in food security issues.


By Bruce Gemmill

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