Washington, DC — Several studies have shown the global increase in food demand by 2050 can be met by increasing yields on existing cropland, but a new study finds that countries in Africa south of the Sahara likely will be unable to meet growing cereal demand through yield increases alone. An anticipated 2.5-fold population increase by 2050, combined with income growth, is expected to triple current cereal demand in the region and will require a multi-pronged approach to food security.

The study, “Can sub-Saharan Africa feed itself,” examined 10 countries in Africa south of the Sahara that jointly make up the majority of population and arable land in the region: Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.

The researchers found that cereal yields would need to increase from 20% of their potential to 80% to maintain current levels of self-sufficiency. Even with this increase in yield more farmland would be needed to attain full self-sufficiency, which is in short supply in much of the region. Ensuring food security in the region will therefore still require increased trade and food imports.

“Self-sufficiency is not a goal in itself, as food security can be achieved through a variety of pathways,”

“Self-sufficiency is not a goal in itself, as food security can be achieved through a variety of pathways,”said Keith Wiebe, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Institute and a co-author of the report.“Boosting crop yields is essential and can go a long way to help meet future food demand; but these countries will also need to increase incomes in other sectors of the economy to ensure adequate food supply – be it from domestic production or imported from regions projected to produce a surplus.”

Cereal demand between 2010 and 2050 is expected to increase by 335% in the region, and over 500% in Niger and Zambia. Population growth accounts for three-fourths of these increases. According to the research, each country in the study except Ethiopia and Zambia have populations and demand growing faster than cereal yield increases.

Without significant growth in yields these countries may turn to expanding cropland to feed their growing populations, which would likely be accompanied by biodiversity loss and increased greenhouse gas emissions. If current yield growth rates continue into the future, an additional 97 million hectares would be needed to achieve self-sufficiency. Seven of the 10 countries in the report, however, do not have enough land suitable for agriculture development to support such an expansion.

Noting these environmental concerns, the authors indicated increasing cropping intensity and irrigated production in regions that can support these activities are the more sustainable options.

The authors recognized that a nation’s economic growth is often dependent first on economic growth in the agricultural sector, and emphasized the importance of public and private investment in agricultural research and development.

“These countries must innovate to increase crop yields because there simply isn’t enough land to continue farming as usual,” said Daniel Mason-D’Croz, scientist at the International Food Policy Research Institute and co-author of the study. “Technology will be key to feeding the growing populations of this region, and so will be policies that encourage sustainable economic development.”

Photo: Oxfam International CC BY-NC-ND 2.0