Challenges to feeding the seven billion and beyond – Part 5: GFSI and prospects for improvement

Low to middle income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia are the most vulnerable to food insecurity. Several priorities to enhance the long-term food security in this region have been suggested.

In the Michigan State University Extension article, “Challenges to feeding the seven billion and beyond – Part 4: Global Food Security Index,” we reviewed how many countries have made modest improvements in near term food security based on the 2016 Global Food Security Index (GFSI). This index is derived from three core categories or drivers of food security, namely affordability, availability, and food quality and safety. Please refer to the 2016 GFSI Full Report for core category scores of all 113 countries included in the study. The core category scores provide additional perspectives for prioritizing development and resource allocation in specific countries.

Additional insights and prospects for improvement

The indicators having the biggest impact on the food affordability score were spending on food as a percentage of the household expenditure, gross domestic product (GDP) and per-capita incomes, presence of a food safety net, and access to financing for farmers. The indicators that had the biggest impact on food availability were production levels (supply), agriculture infrastructure, post-harvest losses and political stability. Key indicators for the food quality and safety were the availability of minerals and vitamins in the diet, protein quality, diet diversification and access to potable water.

The GDP of a country and its GFSI score are highly correlated (X,Y = 0.78).

The GFSI shows that 35 of the 40 most food-secure countries are coastal countries. Landlocked countries with poor infrastructure and without access to seaports are restricted in trade. They encounter higher transportation costs and tariffs. The World Bank found that the volume of international trade of a landlocked developing country is, on average, just 60 percent of the trade volume of a comparable coastal country.

Several sub-Saharan African and south Asian countries with low to middle incomes should consider increasing investment in crop storage facilities, transport infrastructure, agriculture research and extension and food safety net programs in the future. Other urgent issues that need to be addressed are the lack of land ownership, gender inequality, availability of agricultural credit and reliable market outlets to farmers.

As high as 60–70 percent of the population in these countries are presently engaged in agriculture as a livelihood. Therefore, creating social conditions that lead to economic independence and empowerment of farmers is a cornerstone for self-sufficiency, rural development and quality of life. Some of the current development strategies seem to be outdated and inefficient. There is some hope of transformation, though, as some of these countries will be among the world’s faster growing economies in the next few years.

Some of the low to middle income countries have begun to embrace technology and innovation, including genetically modified (GM) crops, new drought-tolerant hybrids, high quality seed and vaccines for livestock to increase their agriculture output. Indigenous varieties should be preserved but only the newly improved breeds are capable of production above the subsistence level. Conventional breeding techniques are still being used, but GM crops can be developed much faster to address specific needs. For example, in India, by using a Bt cotton the small holder farmers have substantially increased the crop yield per acre and as a result, their quality of life. The GM crops provide more reliable pest and weed control with less pesticide use, and therefore greater financial and environmental rewards.

Ironically, most of the opposition to GM technologies has come from the sub-Saharan and south Asian countries. The GM foods have been around for the past 20 years and the large body of scientific literature until now has shown that GM foods are safe for livestock and human consumption. Even though the debate is still contentious, the advantages of GM crops have far outweighed any reported drawbacks. While been respectful of the sovereignty of each country to make their own decisions, the tide has turned towards GM crops in terms of the number of countries and acres adapting GM crops.

Even on small holder farms, appropriate mechanization strategies have a large role to play in improving labor and land productivity. In labor surplus economies, net labor displacement or replacement should be avoided, recognizing the importance of manual labor, hand tools, draft animals and motorized equipment to suit local situations. Currently, two-thirds of the power used to prepare sub-Saharan African land for farming is provided by human muscle compared to 30 percent in South Asia and even lower percentage for Latin America. So the judicious integration of farm machinery is a key ingredient in sub-Saharan Africa with the potential to impact the living standards of millions of rural families.

As economies grow and transform, the industrial sector is expected to absorb any displaced agricultural labor with high wage jobs. Agricultural mechanization in its broadest sense can contribute significantly to the sustainable development of food systems globally, as it has the potential to render more efficient production, post-harvest, processing and marketing practices.

In some countries where the crop productivity is very low, judicious use of synthetic fertilizer may play a critical role in increasing yield and profitability. In sub-Saharan Africa, the cereal crop yields are less than 50 percent of the global average. Field research has demonstrated the potential for significant yield increases utilizing the 4R stewardship practices. However, crop response to fertilizer will be reduced on poorly managed lands that are eroded, compacted or over cropped.

Although nutritional standards have improved in every region, a lot more needs to be achieved particularly in the sub-Saharan African region. These steps include national nutrition plans, dietary guidelines and nutrition monitoring programs that are critical to improving the Food Quality and Safety Index scores.

There is a huge disparity in the daily calorie intake around the world. The per capita calorie intake in the industrialized countries is around 3,300 compared to 2,648 in South Asia and 2,098 in sub-Saharan Africa. If a standard intake of 2,400 calories are needed per day, these figures estimate the undernutrition among the sub-Saharan populations and over-consumption in developed countries.

There are different views regarding the persistent conundrum on Africa's failure to properly exploit its huge agricultural potential. This region has suffered from civil wars, dysfunctional governments, lack of infrastructure and degraded soil. However, scholars have also pointed out the enormous opportunities that lie ahead, to transform its agriculture into a force for economic growth through advances in science and technology, protection of forests and ecosystems, regional markets and emerging entrepreneurial leaders dedicated to the continent's economic improvement.

Given the scenario in sub-Saharan Africa, the current U.S.-Africa trade policy relative to grain market may have to be revised to provide U.S. producers fair access to a bigger market share realizing that sub-Saharan Africa has the fastest growing population in the world. Increased export opportunities for U.S. grain producers mean better commodity prices for our local producers. Also, the current U.S. Development Aid may be better utilized in investments associated with rural infrastructure, agricultural development and human nutrition that will lead to long-term trade and food security in the region.

The GFSI score highlights the fact that food security is a multi-faceted issue encompassing GDP, income levels, culture, climate, natural resources, governance and geographic location.

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