At the annual National Food Policy Conference in Washington, a panel of experts discussing the roots of Africa's chronic food insecurity urged major new investments in agricultural development. Véronique LaCapra reports.
Daniel Karanja, a senior fellow at the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa, says three-quarters of the world's ultra-poor - people living on less than 50 cents a day - live in Africa. According to Karanja, about one-third of Africa's seven million people are undernourished.
He attributes Africa's food insecurity to a combination of increasing population growth and declining agricultural production. "This has been going on for awhile, the last 30 years, resulting in a structural food deficit as food demand outstrips domestic food supply," he says.
Karanja adds that in the 1970s, most African countries were net exporters of food. "Now most of them are net importers," he says.
Karanja blames environmental degradation for much of the decline in agricultural productivity. He says that as population pressure on land rises, there is significant over-cropping, overgrazing and expansion of farming into fragile lands.
"Most smallholder farmers have been cultivating their farms for five to six decades without fallow, mining every bit of nutrients and adding very little back," he says.
Karanja predicts that climate change will exacerbate the problem, because 98 percent of Africa's crop and livestock production is rain-fed. "There is great reliance on rainfall. And that has become increasingly unpredictable, erratic and unreliable."
The key to improving food security in Africa, says Karanja, is to invest in agriculture. "Most African economies are agro-based. Three out of every four Africans live in rural areas and depend entirely on agriculture for their livelihood."
Consequently, Karanja believes the most viable means of improving the livelihood of poor people and achieving rapid poverty and hunger reduction in Africa is through investments that accelerate agricultural growth.
For Michael Parr, a senior manager at the chemical company Dupont, the key to a sustainable agricultural system is increased crop yields. Dupont is a founding member of an industry coalition called the Alliance for Abundant Food and Energy.
"If you could export U.S. levels of yield to other parts of the world," says Parr, "you could double production in East Africa, you could triple production in South Asia, and you could have almost a five-fold increase in sub-Saharan Africa."
U.S. farmers have achieved their remarkable yields largely through the use of hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.
According to Siwa Msangi, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, achieving such big yield gains in Africa will require some fundamental changes in the way farmers grow food. "And that's where the technology comes in," he says.
Msangi says that well-managed irrigation projects - and giving smallholder farmers access to better seeds - would help maintain yields as climate change makes rainfall less reliable. "That's where you need the improved drought-tolerance, heat-tolerance, salt-tolerant technologies, both from nontransgenic breeding and transgenic breeding," he says.
However, Msangi stresses that countries must be equipped to evaluate the sustainability of those technologies for their local conditions.
For any of these new technologies to be successful, says rural sociologist Mary Hendrickson, they will need to be carefully integrated into existing farming systems. "We've really got to talk about appropriate and complementary integration … of local and traditional knowledge systems, and indigenous knowledge, with what we learn through formal ... science and technology."
When it comes to biotechnology, Daniel Karanja agrees. "We have to make sure that, one, it's appropriate, two, decisions are made locally, and number three is that there's capacity to manage those kinds of technologies." He says that countries will need to be able to assess the risks of new technologies and regulate their use.
For agricultural development to actually benefit the poor, says Mary Hendrickson, it must create opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship that specifically help small farmers. But Hendrickson adds that farmers will need to balance their increased production against potential environmental impacts.