Researchers Project Sub-Saharan Africa Will Not Be Able to Feed Itself by 2050

Of the five major grains grown in the region (maize, millet, rice, wheat, and sorghum), maize is the most important in terms of yield and caloric value—but yields of the grain must be at least doubled in the coming decades if there is any hope of...

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Dec 14 2016, 4:00pm

Photo via Feed My Starving Children

The central question of an unsettling new study on agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is simple: Will the region be able to feed itself for the next forty years? According to researchers, whose findings were published this week by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the short answer is no.

Global food demand is projected to increase 60 percent by 2050; in SSA, that number will be even higher. Although the region already produces about 80 percent grain consumed there, the population is expected to increase by more than double in that time, and its demand for grain will likely triple. Grains were given special attention because they make up approximately 50 percent of daily calorie intake and total crop area in SSA.

Researchers investigated whether it was possible for SSA to become self-sufficient by closing its cereal yield gap (the greatest potential yield from a crop that is being well managed vs its actual, current yields). Closing a yield gap is a way of optimizing current land usage, as opposed to simply increasing land usage for agriculture and planting more crops.

As MUNCHIES reported earlier this year, half of Africa is in dire need of food assistance. The dire situation there stems from a variety of factors, including conflict, flooding, and drought. Even El Niño, typically associated with drastic weather patterns in California and the Pacific Ocean, has played a part—affecting nearly 50 million residents, and driving up food prices.

"Climate change will make the challenge of achieving food security more difficult," co-author Ken Cassman, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, tells MUNCHIES.

That may sound like a given, but the study's estimates don't even take major ecological factors such as global warming into account—the effects are still a "large uncertainty" pertaining to cereal yield in SSA leading up to 2050, the study maintains.

READ MORE: Half of Africa Doesn't Have Enough Food

Even using modern technologies and farming practices, the outlook is grim. Of the five major grains grown in the region (maize, millet, rice, wheat, and sorghum), maize is the most important in terms of yield and caloric value—but yields of the grain must be at least doubled in the coming decades if there is any hope of sufficient food production.

Finally, the study does note that there are certain social and conservational changes that would positively affect food production leading up to 2050, but it does not account for them in the study itself.

Cassman's own observations, and warnings could not be more direct:

"This is a clarion call for action."