By Jomo Kwame Sundaram
The 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization and its United Nations partners in mid-July, reports that chronic hunger continued to increase to 690 million worldwide in 2019, 60 million more than in 2014.
Some two billion people worldwide were already experiencing some food insecurity during 2019, a number likely to spike upward due to COVID-19. Although headline hunger numbers have been significantly revised down retrospectively with better official data, the uptrend remains alarming.
The 2020 UN report continues to expand its coverage of malnutrition, going beyond the old narrow focus on dietary energy or caloric undernourishment. With its cost estimates for healthy diets much higher than for energy-based diets, as many as three billion people in the world cannot afford nutritious diets.
Another false start in Africa
Even progress in addressing dietary energy undernourishment in the world has been uneven, with Africa projected to overtake South Asia in a decade as the region with the most hungry people, rising to 433 million in 2030 from a quarter billion.
The report False Promises argues that despite improved understanding of malnutrition, a narrow focus on increasing caloric supply, at the expense of both crop and dietary diversity, is being promoted by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
AGRA promised to double productivity and incomes for 30 million small-scale farming households while halving food insecurity by 2020 in the 11 remaining focus countries using high-yielding commercial seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.
Launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2006, AGRA has spent almost US$1 billion promoting such practices. The report shows problematic outcomes, with AGRA "failing on its own terms".
Who gains from subsidies?
As most farmers cannot afford AGRA's expensive recommended commercial seeds and fertilizers, African governments subsidize them at the cost of about US$1 billion annually.
Subsidies for commercial seeds and fertilizers have mainly promoted 'starchy' crops, such as maize and rice, resulting in much more land planted with such subsidized crops, often replacing more climate-resilient, nutritious crops such as sweet potato and millet.
However, the promised productivity surge has not happened, only rising modestly, with net incomes barely increasing, if at all, despite the subsidies. Meanwhile, the number of hungry people in AGRA focus countries has increased by 30% since 2006!
Maize production rose 87%, mainly due to more land being planted with it, while millet fell 24%, with yields falling 21% in AGRA countries. Staple root crops, including sweet potato and cassava, saw a 7% yield decline under AGRA.
As it reaches its own 2020 deadline, neither AGRA nor the Gates Foundation has published any overall evaluation of its impacts on the yields, incomes, food security and nutritional status of the smallholder households reached.
Food systems for healthy diets
Most African farmers are believed to be poor, growing crops for both subsistence and sale. But diverse, healthy diets for them are now less affordable as nutritious, climate-resilient, 'traditional' crops have been displaced by AGRA-promoted crops such as maize and rice.
Such Green Revolution programs have thus undermined sustainable crop diversity supportive of dietary diversity. These generally include more plant-based diets, considered better for both human health and the environment.
Sustainable farming should instead promote nutritious, affordable diets for all, especially the world's half billion small-scale farmers who, along with their families, comprise many of the world's hungry.
By contrast, nearly 300 large 'ecological agriculture' projects in more than fifty poor countries apparently averaged a 79% productivity increase, with declining costs and increasing incomes, more impressive than AGRA, and with superior nutrition outcomes.
Rwanda's AGRA record
Rwanda's purported success as an AGRA focus country elevated Rwandan Agriculture Minister Agnes Kalibata to AGRA's leadership in September 2014. In late 2019, she was named to lead preparations for the UN Secretary-General's World Food Systems Summit in 2021.
Rwanda's maize production grew four-fold, with a 66% yield rise due to fertilizers and high-yielding seeds, with the rest presumably due to 146% more land under the crop. Rice output nearly doubled under AGRA, as planted rice land rose 147% as yields fell 19%.
But this boom has come at the expense of more nutritious and diverse small-scale agriculture, with the AGRA package imposed with a heavy hand, and the government reportedly banning cultivation of some other staple crops in some areas.
Sorghum, cassava, sweet potato, and other roots and tubers were more important food crops than maize before AGRA, providing dietary diversity and benefits to the soil. Land under cassava fell 16%, while that under sorghum declined 17%.
One step forward, two steps back
Dr Kalibata claims to have raised per capita calorie production from 1,700 to 2,700 daily. But Tim Wise's Staple Yield Index suggests a more modest overall net yield increase of 24% after 12 years of AGRA-influenced policy.
Although maize output rose four-fold as rice harvested doubled, chronic hunger increased by over 40% between 2006 and 2019 as the number of undernourished rose by 1.3 million to 4.4 million according to the UN report.
Meanwhile, Rwandan poverty, which had fallen by half a million in the dozen years before AGRA, rose by half a million under AGRA.
The Rwandan government campaign was resisted by many farmers, eventually forcing it to relax some crop restrictions, to allow more diversity, as President Paul Kagame sought re-election in 2017. Nonetheless, maize and other favored crops remain heavily subsidized and supported.
The AGRA model imposed on previously relatively diverse Rwanda farming almost certainly undermined its more nutritious and sustainable traditional agricultural cropping patterns, which are not easily measured using money-metric indices.
Replacing hunger with malnutrition
A popular and persistent misconception is that it is necessary to first overcome dietary energy undernourishment before addressing malnutrition. Dr Kalibata has argued that "poor, hungry countries can't think about diet diversity, it's a luxury".
While traditional and subsistence food production and consumption undoubtedly had problems, food access and dietary diversity were generally better. 'Hidden hunger' is best addressed by dietary diversity, supported by crop diversity in farming, rather than the Green Revolution's exclusive focus on raising caloric intake.
Thus, seemingly paradoxically, 'dirt-poor' subsistence farmers' children may have better diets than those of richer mono-cropping farmers. Monoculture's damaging impacts on biodiversity, natural resources and ecosystems are also well-known.
With growing recognition of the many problems of health, human development and well-being due to malnutrition, including maternal, infant and child malnutrition, it would be a major step back to singularly focus on dietary energy intake.
Food systems against malnutrition
At the mid-point of the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition since 2016, it is crucial that the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit ensures that food systems do not leave anyone behind in the ongoing struggle against malnutrition.
This could happen if micronutrient deficiencies and other health problems are ignored in singular pursuit of increasing caloric output, which may not even reduce hunger, as in Rwanda.
Clearly, progress will not be achieved by either a nostalgic return to tradition or subsistence in very changed circumstances, or blind faith in corporate profit-driven technological change, insensitive to the needs of resource and ecological sustainability, social justice, farmer welfare, food safety, human nutrition and health.
Progressively transform food systems
The July UN report, subtitled Transforming Food Systems for Affordable Healthy Diets, suggests how food systems need to be changed to enable affordable, nutritious diets for the billions who cannot afford them, thus building on the 2014 second International Conference on Nutrition.
The report recognizes the fundamental importance of both the 'hidden hunger' of micronutrient deficiencies and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Most fruits, vegetables and other nutrient dense foods are now beyond the reach of low-income households.
The challenge is compounded by poor food consumption habits and bad dietary behavior due to other influences such as advertising, markets, convenience and changing lifestyles. Policies to reduce costs and improve access to healthy diets for all clearly need urgent attention.
As developing countries reconsider food supply chains after recent disruptions due to unexpected COVID-19 contagion, containment and relief measures, the vulnerable must be prioritized, with up to 130 million more projected to go hungry due to lost incomes.
This article was originally published on KSJomo.org.
(Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a prominent Malaysian economist, is Senior Adviser at Khazanah Research Institute, Visiting Fellow at the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, Columbia University, and Adjunct Professor at the International Islamic University.)