Talk of the global population reaching 10 billion by 2050 has been around for some time. Yet, this statistic actually hides the real source of this growth, and its implications.
Only two regions — sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – will contribute the lion’s share of this new headcount. Indeed, elsewhere in the world, populations will mostly either plateau or even decline.
With food systems predominantly local in nature, Africa and Asia face a potentially catastrophic food shortfall unless they can boost productivity dramatically.
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This hefty goal is complicated further by the fact that even current farming practices are being compromised by the climate crisis. Disastrous droughts, record-breaking heatwaves and weather-related natural disasters are already causing havoc for farmers worldwide.
At the same time, the global agriculture sector is being tasked with reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least one gigatonne per year by 2030 (out of around 7-8 gigatonnes total) in order to stay within the 2oC of warming agreed by the UN Paris Agreement.
This presents a colossal task, for which we all are responsible, and available resources are already stretched.
Today is Earth Overshoot Day, marking the earliest day in history where humanity’s use of the world’s resources has exceeded what the planet can regenerate in that year. Food systems make up more than a quarter of the global ecological footprint, and future food demand could push this number even higher.
Malnutrition, migration, urbanisation and unemployment could all be exacerbated, putting a further strain on Earth’s resources. But, it is obvious that “food and fuel” are at the heart of these challenges – the rest are just “footnotes”.
Could food systems in Africa and Asia become a model for how we might simultaneously deliver greater volumes of more nutritious food, whilst minimising the sector’s collective environmental footprint?
Many projects are already underway in both regions, but these will require urgent scaling up to meet this challenge in time.
For example, in terms of boosting productivity, biofortified crops and improved seeds have been gradually gaining ground across both Africa and Asia. Examples include zinc wheat which provides up to 50 per cent of an adult’s daily zinc needs. It also produces high yields, resists diseases and reduces childhood illness by boosting immune systems.
In Nigeria, farmers are getting access to improved varieties of cassava seeds, improving their net productivity and income. This could be transformative as cassava is a major staple crop for over half a billion people, mostly in parts of Africa and Asia.
Likewise, the African Chicken Genetic Gain (ACGG) project is working to breed higher-producing chickens and make these available to farmers across Ethiopia, Tanzania and Nigeria. Compared to indigenous breeds, these chickens can produce between 100 and 160 per cent more eggs, playing a significant role in reducing poverty and increasing the intake of protein to combat malnutrition.
Then, there are solutions that combat pre- and post-harvest losses.
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), for instance, has worked to identify and disseminate practices to farmers that reduce the impact of Fall Armyworm, a pest that has been ravaging crops in sub-Saharan Africa since 2016.
The development of Aflasafe has the potential to drastically reduce the aflatoxin contamination of certain crops, with field tests already showing a reduction of around 90 per cent. This is vital as aflatoxin, a poison produced by certain moulds, can suppress the immune system, cause cancer and lead to liver disease.
These farming practices, however, must be done while safeguarding the environment over the long term and combatting the effects of climate change.
Take the work CGIAR has done to understand how carbon sequestration works. Their research found that certain practices worked better at sequestering carbon in soil, such as reducing the burning of crop residues in India to using conservation agriculture practices.
Similarly, a programme in the Sahel empowers farmers with the skills and support to restore degraded land to the region, building resilience to climate change and supporting their transition to more sustainable rural livelihoods.
Transforming the agriculture sector also has the potential to drive jobs and growth for the increasing amount of people that will be living on the planet.
In Africa, for example, 60 per cent of its population live in rural areas. Many of these communities rely on farming for their subsistence. Rapid urbanisation puts pressure on farmers to produce more but also provides opportunities for new jobs, moving from ‘agriculture as a way of life’ to ‘agriculture as a business’. These local rural-to-urban food systems could represent almost 90 per cent of smallholder farmers’ future income potential in the region.
Transforming agriculture in this way will require a huge infusion of knowledge, innovation and tools as well as continued investment.
Disruptive technologies like drought-resilient seeds and digital tools like drones and artificial intelligence can play powerful roles.
Improving access to other key inputs like water and fertilizer, as well as wider technical services such as agricultural machinery, can help foster a boost in production and increase farmers’ yields.
Addressing the gender gap can also empower women and increase food supply, since their yields average 20-30 per cent less than men’s due to lack of equal access to technology, inputs, and services. Bridging this gap alone could boost agricultural output in developing countries by up to 4 per cent, providing a critical contribution to meeting the needs of Africa’s and Asia’s pending population boom.
Time is running out to prepare for the real demographic shift in our global population over the coming decades. Innovation and investment are needed now to help these regions get their food systems ready.