Food, the agricultural challenge of our time

Tuesday April 22 2014

By Ssali Michael

I wish to share with readers of Farmers Diary the ideas that I picked from a presentation of a distinguished plant scientist and professor emeritus at University of Oxford, Dr Chris Leaver, which he gave to a group of agriculture journalists from Africa on April 11 at the University of Cambridge.

He began by drawing our attention to the fact that while the world population is 7.2 billion, it will be nine billion by 2050 and that most of the predicted 1.8 billion increase will be in Africa.

I quickly remembered that the fertility rate in Uganda for each woman is 6.2 children. It is one of the highest in the world.

“In the next 50 years, we will need to produce as much food as has been consumed over our entire human history,” was to me the dominant quote in Prof Leaver’s presentation.

The increase in the food prices in Africa should not be hard to understand given the following reasons.
n Africa’s agricultural production has generally stagnated for much of the 1960-2010 period, and it has even tended to decline more recently.

African governments have not invested as much as they should in agricultural research and translation into the field-education and support for farmers.

n Africa’s productive land is diminishing due to population pressure, which has resulted in land fragmentation, deforestation, and depleted soils. Yet the ordinary African farmer lacks the financial means to purchase fertilisers and to carry out irrigation.

Harvesting, storage, and transport difficulties continually cause food loss, accounting for about 90 per cent of all the food lost in Africa (FAO report, 22 January 2012).

Civil unrest has hampered food production in many countries and climate change with its accompanying extreme events--heat, drought, and floods--is already upon us.
n Emerging pests and crop diseases (like Banana Bacterial Wilt, Cassava Brown Streak, among others), are on the rise, threatening to wipe out staple food crops.
Prof Leaver believes that one of Africa’s key strategies should be more investment in agricultural biotechnology to come up with improved local crop varieties adapted to our soils, environmental conditions and needs.