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Food Security In Africa: Is genetically modified technology a pathway?, by Prof MK Othman


Food Security In Africa: Is genetically modified technology a pathway?, by Prof MK Othman

Deep Thoughts with Othman

A few years ago, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) rated eighty-six countries as low-income and food-deficient nations, thus, considered to be food insecure (http://www.fao.org/docrep/w9290e/w9290e01.htm). Forty-three out of these food-deficient countries are located in the African continent, which has a total of 58 countries. The most affected among the forty-three countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) where chronic hunger, squalor, and abject poverty are widespread. This is despite overall gains recorded in food production and food security over a decade on a global scale. In 2017, the FAO’s Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition report indicated that “The number of undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa has increased mainly due to the impact of conflict and climate change with the situation pointing to the urgent need to build affected communities; resilience and to find peaceful solutions that strengthen food security”. The report further stated that “the prevalence of chronic undernourishment appears to have risen from 20.8 to 22.7 per cent between 2015 and 2016”. Dr Bukar Tijani, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Africa was quoted as saying The number of undernourished people rose from 200 to 224 million, accounting for 25 per cent of the 815 million people undernourished in the world in 2016”. The malnourishment of millions of people in Africa is mainly due to low productivity. Agricultural productivity in Africa is very low, it is estimated to range between 300 and 500 kilograms per hectare as compared to the average of 2,500 kilograms per hectare in the United States. This low productivity is linked to farmers’ poor access to improved inputs such as improved seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides as well as proven and relevant technologies for increased productivity. FAO reported that the application of fertilizers in Sub-Sahara Africa is the lowest in the world, at 11 kilograms per hectare compared with the world average of 62 kilograms per hectare.

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, world hunger increased significantly that brought as many as 161 million people fell into hunger between 2019 and 2020. As of 2022, the world´s population facing food insufficiency rosed to 811 million people, translating to about one in 10 people in the world going to bed without enough nutrition in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The situation in Africa has been particularly worrisome as many people were vulnerable. About 21% of the African population suffered from hunger in 2020, which was estimated to be 282 million people. Between 2019 and 2020, in the aftermath of the pandemic, 46 million people became hungry in Africa. Africa recorded the highest share of its population suffering from food insecurity in the world.

This gloomy picture is scarier when one peeps into the future. What does the future hold for Africa in respect of food security? By United Nations’ definition, Food security is a condition in which all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. This means that for Africa to achieve food security, all the people living in Africa must have access to affordable and qualitative food, which can meet the nutritious requirement at all times. Food security requirements are inclusive and encompass women, children, and other vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. With this robust definition of food security, it is no surprise that in Africa with 54 independent countries and four dependent countries, 43 of these countries are classified as low–income and food–deficient countries representing 50 per cent of such countries in the World. In Africa, some people eat for mere survival when food is available, accessible, and affordable. So, to achieve food security in Africa now and in the future, it is pertinent to consider the population in Africa.

Today, the African continent houses about 1.43 billion people, which is a distant second to Asia with 4.75 billion people out of the total World population of 8.02 billion people as of February 2023 according to www.worldmeters.com. The African population is equivalent to 17.8 per cent of the total World population. By 2050, the World population is estimated to be around 9.8 billion people with people living in Africa as 2.5 billion people. This figure will almost double the current population of the region. Most African countries are expected to almost double their population by the year 2050. However, Nigeria is expected to almost triple its population, as the country is estimated to have 450 million people by 2050 from the current population estimate of over 200 million people. Nigeria will be the third most populous country after India and China. India is likely to be the most populous country with China holding the second position in 2050.

Reflecting in the 1960s, the population in Africa was merely 285 million people, which quadrupled to become 1.43 billion people today. Globally, the population growth rates are slowing down, however, the populations of some African countries particularly Sub-Saharan Africa are still expanding by about 3 per cent a year, enough to double the number of people in one generation as reported by FAO. In contrast, food production in Africa continues to grow more slowly than the population compared to every other region of the world where the production grows higher than the population increase since the 1970s. The foregoing analysis indicates the exponential population increase as a major factor that must be considered for the attainment of food security in any country. African Populations today and tomorrow must be provided with quantitative and qualitative food to reduce hunger and ultimately achieve food security. This concern about hunger in Africa is what impelled the Malabo Declaration. In the 2014 Malabo Declaration, African leaders “reaffirmed the principles and values of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and recommitted their countries to end hunger and halve poverty by 2025, boost intra-African trade, and enhance the resilience of livelihoods and production systems to climate change and other shocks”. What are the challenges responsible for the gloomy picture of the food security situation in Africa today?

African countries face many constraints militating against agricultural production, processing, handling, and marketing. Some of these constraints on agricultural and rural development in Africa can be linked to misguided policies, weak institutions, and a lack of well-trained human resources. Other constraints against agricultural productivity emanate from insecurity and political conflicts, which sometimes resort to civil unrest. However, even under normal circumstances, agricultural productivity in Africa is low compared to other regions. This brings the question of the need to have an edge-cutting technology, which can revolutionize agriculture in the shortest possible time. Can that be genetically modified technology (GMT)? Can GMT be a pathway for ending hunger and achievement of food security in Africa?

(To be continued next week)

Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.

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