Agriculture Transformation Crucial to Tackle Food Insecurity

January 26 , 2019 . By Habtamu Lemma (PhD)

The global increase in population will be more intense in sub-Saharan Africa. This will exacerbate food insecurity, a challenge that will require a holistic approach to address, writes Habtamu Lemma (PhD) (, assistant professor at Wolaita Sodo University.

The world population will top nine billion by 2050, with most of that increase expected to occur in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Compounded by consumption growth, this will mean that the demand for food will substantially increase, a significant challenge given the planet’s limited resources.

African countries are in luck - they have the youngest population in the world and the largest share of the world’s available arable land. Unfortunately, the youth rarely own land, and the average plot size is declining. While there is considerable heterogeneity to the region’s land pressures, many of the region’s most populous countries will soon exhaust their land frontiers, while others have largely already done as such. Agricultural development strategies that base production growth on area expansion will thus be increasingly untenable in many areas.

All of these are challenges that will face Ethiopia. With a population expected to reach 160 million people by 2050, the majority of Ethiopia’s population resides in the highland regions that have the country’s best soil and highest rainfall. The highlands are also one of the most densely populated areas in the country. Most of the arable land in these places are already under cultivation.

It does not help that the economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, with the growing population relying on the land for their livelihoods. Agriculture in Ethiopia includes crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and apiculture and the main source of livelihoods for over two-thirds of the population.

Together with increased populations dependent on agriculture, climatic, social and institutional factors are contributing to low production and productivity. Despite the continuously increasing yields for every hectare, food supplies remain insufficient. Compared to annual population growth, they stand at 2.5pc, according to the World Bank.

Young farmers are cultivating substantially less land than previous generations did. This fact further emphasises the need for either successful agricultural intensification or more rapid migration out of agriculture. Off-farm diversification out of smallholder farming is also important.  In more land-abundant areas, the last decade has seen a shift in emphasis from smallholder resettlement to large commercial farms, which has been functional for purposes not much more than creating seasonal employment.

The food security that countries such as Ethiopia are faced with remains a top development priority and global concern. It is enshrined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by the United Nations.

Food security is also a core component of the human development and capability paradigm since food access and entitlements are critical for reinforcing essential human capabilities. Agriculture is central to this discussion, especially in the effort to increase land productivity and yields.

Rural areas can also benefit from agricultural transformation in the improvement of food and nutrition security. They can increase farm income from the growing urban demand for agricultural products and off-farm income from employment along the value chain.

The Ethiopian highland areas have been contributing as major food producers and benefit in turn. But the rising human population is resulting in land pressure, rural-urban migration, increasing the price of food products, lack of raw materials for industries such as wheat, barley, oilseeds and fodders. This is while the urban population and land have been increasing, which is characterised by high living costs and socioeconomic challenges such as unemployment.

These calls for the concerted effort of government, especially in building the capacity of institutions that are tasked with implementing strategies and policies to deal with this mega challenge.

Integrated and interdisciplinary actions should be taken to respond to the complex challenges of food deficits, raw material demand and unemployment. This should start from the innovations and technologies that have come a long way in food production practices for more output to be generated with less input. Production of essential commodities will also have to rise in consideration of environmental protection against deforestation and soil erosion.

Sustainable intensification of agriculture and livestock systems can ensure food security, better incomes and smallholder competitiveness if research, extension and infrastructure can be improved.

A major challenge will be engaging rural youth in intensive agricultural practices and businesses as a self-employment option. The sector demands a skilled workforce, which is barely possible to attract without ensuring the profitability of agriculture beforehand. There should as well be an effort to control the massive migration out of rural areas into urban centres, which can seriously skew the demand and supply in the market.

In dry regions, where crops are impractical, livestock can be the only option, whereas in higher rainfall areas mixed crop-livestock systems are dominant, since nutrient cycles and traction rely on livestock. With attention to protecting the local population and the environment, incorporating potential lands in the lowlands and pastoral areas in the form of commercial ranching and large-scale irrigated crop farming, especially for producing raw materials for industries and export, are the best means of absorbing a large supply of labour.

The insufficient supply of agricultural inputs and services, including fertilisers, improved crop and forage seeds, livestock genetics, veterinary drugs, feed and small-scale product processing equipment, also needs attention. The high cost of inputs needs to be addressed by the government in partnership with the private sector and donors through investment and allocating resources.

This includes subsidies for farm inputs and technology until it is produced in the country. Improved agricultural extension services are as well necessary for market-oriented farmers to enhance food security and livestock feeds to meet the growing demand.

Smallholders are faced with land insecurity, mainly due to urbanisation, which can cause severe losses in the availability of productive agricultural land unless institutions become capable of implementing the appropriate urban policies on land tenure.

Universities should be part of the institutional capacity building programs necessary to tackle this problem. Through the testing and demonstration of technologies and scientific knowledge for wider uptake, they can inform policy making and implementation.

The government’s efforts should also not stop at universities. Agricultural science should be incorporated in primary education as it encompasses broad multidisciplinary natural, economic and social fields. How food is produced, their value and the importance of balanced diets deserve expanded attention in the education of primary and secondary schooling.

The emerging food crisis requires the development of sustainable food production. This is a challenge that requires a concerted and holistic approach to future agricultural development, which needs to begin now.

PUBLISHED ON Jan 26,2019 [ VOL 19 , NO 978]

Habtamu Lemma (PhD) (, assistant professor at Wolaita Sodo University.

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