A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
Ultimately, price and production scenarios are only as useful as the insights they provide into the threats facing vulnerable people, and the policy options for governments seeking to avert those threats. So what picture do our scenarios paint for the state of world hunger in 2050?
The relentless underlying pressure on the world food system and the risk multiplier effects associated with climate change raise the spectre of an early slowdown in the rate at which malnutrition is falling, followed by medium-term reversals in many countries. Inevitably, the affects will be uneven. Middle-income countries with strong economic growth and a diversified export base will be in a position to mitigate the transmission of world price inflation back to domestic markets. However, many low-income and lower middle-income countries are poorly placed to absorb the impact of higher food import prices.
Once again, sub-Saharan Africa faces some of the gravest threats. Higher prices will translate into depressed demand for food in a region that already has the world’s lowest calorific intake. In a world without climate change, sub-Saharan Africa would still face problems in combating the hunger epidemic. Under a simple baseline scenario, child malnutrition levels would increase by around 8 million to 2030 and by 2050 would revert to the same level as at the turn of the 21st century – around 30 million. Adding in the effects of climate change would increase child malnutrition by just under one million (compared with no climate change) in 2030 (see Figure 13).63
It should be emphasized that the scenarios developed by Oxfam’s commissioned research do not define the world’s destiny. They highlight plausible outcomes based on business-as-usual scenarios. Other futures are possible. Strengthening national agricultural policies and reprioritizing agriculture within the international development agenda more generally would help to raise productivity among small-scale food producers, in turn ensuring that regional productivity keeps pace with population growth. Building a new international governance to avert food crises and respond more effectively when they occur will help shield food-insecure countries and households from future shocks. Unfortunately, inertia in the climate system means action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today will be unable to significantly mitigate climate change within the timescales modelled here, but it will help prevent climate change having even more devastating impacts further in the future. In the face of unavoidable climate change over the coming decades, decisive action by rich countries to support climate change adaptation in the developing world is an urgent priority and will considerably ameliorate the level of food price inflation (see Figure 14), preventing millions of additional cases of malnutrition.
Meeting the sustainable production challenge
Increasing production by 70 per cent within 40 years is a massive challenge, but entirely possible. The key is for rich country governments to resist their agricultural lobbies and remove the trade-distorting support measures which stifle investment where the real potential for increasing yields lies: the small farms of the developing world. Such a shift would free up huge budgetary resources, some of which could be redirected towards ODA for agriculture – kick-starting the rural renaissance needed.
Food availability can also be increased massively by addressing waste – estimated at between 30 and 50 per cent of all food grown.64 In rich countries, where around a quarter of the food purchased by households may be wasted,65 consumers and businesses must change their behaviours and practices. In developing countries, where waste occurs post-harvest due to poor storage and transport infrastructure, governments must increase investment.
Pressures on land and water can be reduced through new practices and techniques that boost yields, use soils and water more sensitively, and reduce their reliance on inputs – techniques such as drip-feed irrigation, water harvesting, low- or zero-till agriculture, agroforestry, intercropping, and the use of organic manures. These would also significantly reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture.
Recent research commissioned by Oxfam simulating the evolution of the costs, income and profits of agroforestry systems in Bolivia demonstrates this.66 These techniques achieved the objectives of forest conservation and climate change mitigation, presenting an alternative to the expansion of the agricultural frontier by soy and cattle farmers through deforestation. Moreover, the income of an average household involved in agroforestry is around five times larger than for any of their immediate alternatives (such as agriculture, small livestock farming or chestnut collection).
National governments can do much more to manage their scarce resources.
Pricing water for industry and commercial agriculture will force businesses and large farms to improve their efficiency. Removing subsidies that inadvertently encourage profligate water use – such as many provided to electricity generators – is also essential. Governments can invest in water management – a very attractive proposition, as estimates suggest that for every dollar spent, a country can expect eight dollars back in averted costs and increases in productivity.67 And they can regulate investments in land to deliver wider social and environmental objectives: the respect of land rights, and the protection of forests and biodiversity.