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Invasive pests, land degradation, erosion, drought and climate change have already caused agricultural yields to fall in some cases by up to 50 per cent, according to a new report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
Business as usual, with Africa’s population set to rise from 770 million to 1.75 billion by 2050, is likely to dwarf the recent food crisis which plunged over 100 million into poverty and hunger in just two years.
The report, “The Environmental Food Crisis”, was launched at the 17 th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development in New York today. It provides some new and sobering costs on how environmental degradation might impact food production, while highlighting new and promising paths.
Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “The economic models and management regimes of the 20 th century are unlikely to serve humanity well on a planet of 6 billion, rising to over 9 billion by 2050. This is particularly true with respect to agriculture and especially valid in Africa.”
“Reversing environmental degradation and investing in our ecological infrastructure such as forests, soils and water bodies is one part of the Green Economy solution—these are the nature-based inputs and infrastructure for agriculture in the first place. The other key is managing them and the food chain in far more efficient ways”, he said.
“A third element, not touched on in this report but also relevant, is the enormous opportunity to diversify livelihoods and incomes via the emerging carbon markets—this includes sectors such as renewable energy, but also the growing prospect of farmers earning an income by conserving forests, soil and vegetation cover to sequester carbon”, said Mr. Steiner.
Under-Exploited Management Options
Water scarcity is an increasing risk in Africa. But studies by UNEP and the World Agroforestry Centre estimated that there was enough rain falling on Africa to supply the water needs for 13 billion people – twice the current world population.
However, little is collected or stored sustainably via methods such as small- and large-scale rainwater harvesting.
Similarly, much of overseas development aid continues to promote the tools, fertilizers and seeds approach.
A recent report by UNEP and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) surveyed 114 small-scale farms in 24 African countries who had switched to organic or near organic production.
- Yields had more than doubled where organic, or near-organic practices had been used, with the yield jumping 128 per cent in east Africa.
- The study found that organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming and also found strong environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought.
Mr. Steiner also emphasized the importance of micro-credit and micro-insurance schemes, such as ones that have been piloted by the World Food Programme (WFP) in Ethiopia in collaboration with donor countries and the insurance industry.
Here farmers have been paid when weather forecasts indicate that drought is looming, and well before a family is down to its last livestock and facing hunger and starvation.
Meanwhile, the UNEP Executive Director also underlined not only the threat, but also the opportunity to diversify economies as a result of climate change and via the emerging carbon markets and carbon funds.
Clean energy projects, such as wind, off-river hydro and solar power are beginning to take off in Africa from an albeit low base. There are now an estimated 100 projects in over 20 countries up and running or in the pipeline.
Mr. Steiner pointed to Kenya, where several hundred megawatts of geothermal electricity are now being installed in the Rift Valley as representing development, poverty-reduction and alternative employment prospects for people.
“ Kenya has plans to generate 1,300MW of geothermal electricity by around 2020. But this is only scratching the surface. Kenya is also a windy country—in Turkana, in the north of the country, a private consortium is developing an initial 300MW of wind energy, following the Government’s introduction of new legislation – equal to around 25 per cent Kenya’s current installed energy capacity”, he said.
“By some rough estimates, the country might have enough windy sites to produce over 30 Gigawatts of wind energy for domestic consumption and export – again alternative livelihoods, new and innovative sectors and employment prospects”, said Mr. Steiner.
On 11 May, UNEP and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) announced they were now working with farmers around Lake Victoria to begin assessing the precise amounts of carbon stored by various climate-friendly land management systems.
This may open up the prospect for farmers and agro-foresters to be paid for not only producing crops, but “farming” carbon back into vegetation and soils.
Some Facts from “The Environment Food Crisis Report” – Africa
The urgent need to evolve Africa’s agriculture and economy onto a more sustainable, diversified footing is underlined in the report presented in New York for the first time.
- Invasive pests, weeds, diseases and erosion are cutting yields by up to 50 per cent, leaving only a small fraction of the potential to be harvested.
- Africa will need an economic and agricultural revolution greater than the one observed in Asia within decades – but without the irrigation water easily accessible in Asia, with lack of infrastructure, and in the face of greater impacts of climate change and land degradation already happening.
- The former Green Revolution in Asia was heavily based upon fertilizer and water from the mighty Himalayas glaciers. The Himalayas glaciers may disappear with climate change, but support over half of Asia’s cereal production – water not available in Africa.
- An urgent revolution is needed in green technology to harvest rainwater and in implementing much more widespread intercropping systems that can sustain soils, nutrients, reduce pests and retain water.
The report also shines a light on perhaps one of the least discussed areas – food waste, from the farm and the seas to the urban market and the kitchen.
Over half of the global food produced today is either lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain.
- Post-harvest losses of Africa’s coastal fisheries and crops range from 25 per cent to as much as 50 per cent for some crops, leaving only a fraction of this available for human consumption and marketing.
- Environmental degradation is jeopardizing the entire platform of food production. Soil erosion alone, accounting for some 1-8 per cent of yield losses globally, range from 2-40 per cent (mean >8 per cent) in Africa.
- By 2050, climate change and water scarcity are likely to cause wide droughts and unpredictable rainfall, accelerate invasive pests like weeds, diseases and locusts, and depress yields even further.
- Droughts have already cost 22-90 per cent loss (average 40 per cent) of livestock losses in the past two decades across African countries, especially on the Horn of Africa, but also in Botswana, Namibia and Niger. Livestock is very important to rural food security in many African countries.
Weed infestations and diseases are also cutting yields in some of Africa’s poorest and most food insecure regions of sub-Saharan Africa.
- They have been estimated to cause an annual loss of $12.8 billion in yield of eight of Africa’s principal crops by cutting already low yields by up to 50 per cent.
Worldwide 67,000 pest species attack crops: 9,000 insects and mites, 50,000 pathogens and 8,000 weeds. Up to 70 per cent of them are introduced, with major impacts on global food production.
- Across Africa, the Asiatic witchweed is a serious agricultural pest in corn, rice, sorghum and sugar cane, affecting over and as much as 40 per cent of arable land in the savannahs. These invasive species stunt maize plant growth by attacking the roots and sucking nutrients and water.
- In West Africa the larger grain borer (Prostephanus truncates) is responsible for cassava losses of approximately $800 million per year thereby jeopardizing food security. In Tanzania the larger grain borer (Prostephanus truncates) causes some $91 million in maize losses per year and crop losses due to introduced insects in South Africa amount to $ 1.25 billion per year.
In many parts of Africa fertilizer use is only 1-2 kg/ha compared to up to100 kg/ha in other parts of the world, but due to lack of infrastructure and long land transport, fertilizer cost up to seven times more in Africa.
- A metric tonne of urea costs around $90 in Europe, $120 in the harbour of Mombasa, Kenya, $400 in western Kenya, and over $770 in Malawi.
In addition the use of fertilizer can make the farmers extremely vulnerable to volatile oil prices and increase their vulnerability to drought and insect plagues.
The projections of continuing declining yields if no action is taken will not only depress productivity – it will also affect the urban populations, as food prices will increase by at least 30-50 per cent, perhaps much more in addition to much greater volatility, warns the report.
Lack of investments in Africa’s agriculture has resulted in a steady setback. In 1992 land productivity in sub-Saharan Africa was 79 per cent of that in Asia; by 2006 it had dropped to only 59 per cent.
Africa ’s share of the global exports also remained less than 3 per cent in the last decade. For every $100 of agricultural output produced in the developed countries, the public spends over $2, compared to only around 50 cents in developing countries, mainly in Asia, while it is actually even less and declining for Africa.
The only increase in investments in the agricultural sector in Africa is the leasing of land by countries like China, the Republic of Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Malaysia and India, including in biofuels to support domestic markets in the home countries outside the African continent.
But the reports points to options in addition to the ones mentioned previously.
Intercropping has the potential to build resilience against climate change, pests and diseases – intercropping is a cultivation method where many different plants and even trees are grown inside the crops allowing farmers to access ground water, reduce evaporation losses and erosion and improve soils.
This may indeed not only help to halt land degradation and help restore degraded lands; it can also provide a “smart” way of increasing food security and generate business opportunities, while reducing vulnerability to farmers to expensive input factors and international oil prices.
The report emphasizes that not only are these more environmentally sustainable production methods essential for maintaining land productivity and food security, they also provide a smart opportunity for generating small business development, jobs and increase predictability in supply.
This is essential for generating the incentives for small-scale investments and supplying urban markets. But it will require targeted systems for micro-finance.
Notes to Editors
The report “The Environmental Food Crisis: The environment’s role in averting future food crises” can be accessed at www.unep.org or at www.grida.no including high and low resolution graphics for free use in publications.
The report is released during the 17 th session of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development taking place in New York from 4 to 15 of May. The meeting’s main focus is on finding solutions to the current environmental, financial and food crisis in Africa.
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