Is Africa about to see mass starvation again? Not on present trends.

According to a new end-of-year FAO report “Crop Prospects and Food Situation”

“Global cereal production in 2016 received a further boost, owing to generally favourable growing conditions for the crops harvested later in the season.”

That’s great, and adds to boosts from a host of other factors. Obviously the FAO can’t commit climate heresy by saying so, but you have to suspect this may be a result of the positive effects of global warming and the global greening that arises from it.

There are some interesting insights into Africa in the report, and unlike most international reports the figures are sound. Since the agricultural inputs and outputs are hard for corrupt regional statistics-fiddlers to manipulate, unlike many educational and development aid outcomes, or things like wildlife counts.

There’s one especially positive set of statistics. In the west many people will casually assume that Western Africa and the Sahel nations are mostly desert. But now these nations are…

“about to achieve record production of cereals” in 2017 and rice is also doing well… “growing conditions have also proven conducive across Northern Hemisphere Africa, where the rice output is seen at a fresh peak of 19.8 million tonnes”

While back in the European Union, curiously…

“Significant production declines are estimated in the European Union, with the wheat output falling by 16.5 million tonnes on a yearly basis”.

The trade journal AgriMoney attributes this trend to urbanisation and afforestation of the countryside, and it affects many other crops such as potatoes. According to this trade journal…

“the downward trend in EU crop area [increases] as towns and forests expand, a decline which stretches back to the 1990s.”

The decline may also be something to do with the ageing and declining demographics of the continent, I’d guess? Old people tend to eat less, in aggregate. This rather startling comparison between the EU and the Sahel evokes the surreal image of a future starving elderly Italian pensioner opening their Christmas food aid parcel, to find it stamped: “From the people of Mali”.

But seriously, the FOA report of course reveals hotspots of food stress in the southern hemisphere part of Africa. These are almost all due to the expected local areas of El Nino‑induced drought, but sometimes to socialist politics or some vicious (usually religious) insurgency. Though it can’t be long now before some journalists start lazily eliding the droughts with global warming.

The FAO’s report suggests that the main serious problem areas for 2017 are:

* Malawi where the corn crops failed repeatedly, and where 6.5 million people sound like they could use some regular subsidised corn supplies as food aid in 2017;

* The basket-case nation of Zimbabwe will likely see even more hardship in 2017, with the FOA saying the nation’s dire politics and the 2016 drought will place a biggest-ever 4.07 million people at risk due to severe food shortages. The FAO talks ominously of “large declines” in its cereal production.

* Localised droughts in the far south of the island of Madagascar “have resulted” [in] “up to 850,000 people requiring emergency assistance”, though the rice production there actually increased. It seems unclear if food aid is still needed, or if the local government can keep handling it.

* There is even western media talk of possible problems in a couple of war-torn and inaccessible towns of relatively prosperous Nigeria, following some recently NGO press releases. But the government there rejects the tin-rattling rhetoric being used: “Nigeria accuses aid groups of exaggerating hunger crisis”, stating that…

“aid agencies had been attempting “to whip up a non-existent fear of mass starvation.”

…in order to bring in funds at Christmas. Food prices are high at present in Nigeria due to some exporting, but the Nigerian government’s complaint is clearly supported by the above FOA report which states that…

“above‑average cereal harvests are expected [for 2017] in most coastal countries including Nigeria where the aggregate cereal output is forecast to remain close to last year’s above‑average level.”

* The Horn of Africa is generally stressed, and major food aid may be needed in the spring in some war-torn parts of it such as parts of Sudan and Somalia, but The World Bank is saying of places such as Ethiopia that…

“Economic growth remained at a respectable 8% in 2015/16, which is impressive especially compared to previous drought situations … said Carolyn Turk, World Bank Country Director for Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan.” … “growth momentum will still remain and since 2016 rains arrived as expected, the recent drought will not likely affect Ethiopia’s medium-term economic growth.” (my emphasis)

Overall, the central and southern parts of Africa appear to have coped relatively well with the El Nino‑induced droughts, the worst in several decades, which have in places provided a bitter ‘stress test’ of Africa’s continuing development and growth. From my reading of the FOA report it seems that, with some relatively modest and targeted food aid in early 2017, the dozen or so very real hardship spots in Africa should pull through without mass starvation. None of these hotspots have arisen due to global warming.

The largest ongoing real risk in 2017 appears to me to be a Venezuela-style systemic collapse in Zimbabwe, and a few conflict zones.

There are reasons for optimism, beyond the next few months. Africa’s weather and rains in the south should be back to normal in 2017, and there are now plans and money on the table to try to make future African droughts even more survivable. Such as:

* grain marketing boards made to work in such a way that everyone can see exactly where any corruption or price-fixing is.

* better management of water access, better access to Africa’s huge river systems for generally increased water supply.

* better long-term weather forecasting of drought, and seed distribution systems that enable small farmers to switch crops quickly in response.

* better access to market prices and trends, via a farmer’s mobile phone, encouraging the sort of businesses literacy that will make swopping to drought-resistant crops easier.

* free or very cheap school meals.

* large national grain reserves (such as those held by Morocco and Zambia).

* reserve government funds, held in corruption-free escrow in dollars — for quickly buying and shipping emergency grain to short-term food not-spots and refugee camps. Such as that currently being deployed by Kenya to help people hit by drought.

* better roads for quick transportation of aid, which will also offer more efficient transport of crops to market.

* drought-resistant and GMO crops.

* simply bringing more land under the plough, as Africa’s population grows and young workers are available, thus boosting overall local production.

* increased open access to global markets, such as the UK after Brexit, opening up the possibility of having rows of high-value crop types growing alongside staple crops.

* cutting bio-fuels production, through which the West diverts a significant part of its field crops to make motor fuel. A reduction in bio-fuels would generally decrease global food prices.

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