I recently read Bill Gates’ thoughts on the war in Ukraine and the resulting interruption of grain imports from Europe to Africa that created another humanitarian crisis in Africa.
Bill’s thoughts on investments in Agricultural R&D are compelling and I’d like to summarize them here, because innovations like this can play a role in avoiding these situations in the future.
Between 2018 and 2020, Africa imported $3.7 billion in wheat (32% of the continent’s total wheat imports) from Russia and another $1.4 billion from Ukraine (12% of the continent’s wheat imports).
In February, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine interrupted those imports, and the supply shock spiked the price of replacement wheat to its highest level in 40 years. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, global food prices were already rising. This was mostly as a result of sub-par harvests, increased transport costs and supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19.
While prices eventually started falling in May, there were already the makings of a serious modern famine. World leaders were sounding the alarm bell, calling for an influx of food aid—money and pallets of food to be shipped to sub-Saharan ports.
But in hindsight, the real question is…. why did a crisis in Eastern Europe threaten to starve millions of people six thousand miles away?
A Story of Supply & Demand
The shortage of wheat in Africa during the Ukraine invasion is a simple story of supply and demand. When it comes to wheat, Africa’s crop yields are relatively low compared to other major producing wheat regions. On top of that, the continent’s population growth has outpaced their agricultural production.
When a region can’t grow enough to feed its people, there’s only one solution—to import food—which Africa does on the order of $23 billion a year. The situation highlights the need for African countries to not only diversify their food imports, but to also invest in expanding domestic production capacity.
The low agricultural productivity has everything to do with the conditions in which African farmers labor. The region suffers from extreme weather conditions, water scarcity, poor soil quality and poor irrigation systems. So, whenever there’s a shock to the wider food system and the total global supply of food is reduced, they cannot grow enough to make up the deficit.
These food deficits tend to be made up for in the form of food aid. Even before the war in Ukraine, food aid for low-income countries had been skyrocketing, and it’s projected to keep rising through the end of the decade.
In one sense, this is a very good and necessary thing. The world should be generous and prevent people from going hungry. But in another sense, it doesn’t solve the larger problem.
The Biggest Risk to Africa’s Crop Production: Climate Change
The war in Ukraine was a major disruption to the global food supply, but climate change presents a much bigger problem. In fact, climate change is the largest threat to food production, especially in Africa where the environment is deteriorating fastest.
To more clearly see the potential impact of climate change on farming, let’s take for example a single crop: corn (“maize”), which accounts for about 30% of all calories consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Maize is an incredibly important crop, but it’s also a sensitive one. When temperatures exceed 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), the growing process starts breaking down; pollination and photosynthesis slow. By the end of the decade, 30% of Africa’s maize crop will exist in these conditions. This severe climate stress is the principal reason 32 million more people in Africa are projected to be hungry in 2030.
A Promising Solution: Investments in Agricultural R&D
So how do farmers living in a region with worsening climate conditions respond to lower crop yields? According to a World Bank survey, the second and third most common responses were “eating less” and “selling livestock,” while the top answer was just “do nothing.”
Fortunately, recent agricultural innovations have shown promising results. One recent innovation comes from the Gates Foundation, which supported a group of African crop researchers to address this maize issue fourteen years ago. The goal was to develop a new type of maize that would be more resistant to a hotter and drier climate. They succeeded wildly with new climate-resilient seeds called DroughtTEGO® which produce an average of 66% more grain per acre.
Innovations like DroughtTEGO maize provide hope that agricultural productivity can still increase despite the changing climate. However, investment in similar agricultural R&D is still lacking and cumulative spending on food aid still outpaces agriculture research.
To address the current food crisis and increase agricultural productivity, one important solution is to make the slopes of these two lines look more like each other, with big funding increases for agriculture innovations like DroughtTEGO and other fundamental investments in agriculture too.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine interrupted the flow of grain from Europe to Africa and created a serious humanitarian crisis in Africa. The situation highlights the need for African countries to not only diversify their food imports, but to also invest in expanding domestic production capacity.
However, for regions like Africa, increasing production capacity is difficult in the face of extreme weather conditions, water scarcity, poor soil quality and poor irrigation systems. Since climate conditions are also expected to worsen, as Bill Gates highlights, more innovative solutions will be needed to increase production.
There remains a significnt gap between the amount of money spent on food aid vs agriculture R&D, and considering the success of recent innovations like DroughtTEGO, more investments in agriculture research might prove worthwhile.
“The goal should not simply be giving more food aid. It should be to ensure no aid is needed in the first place.” The Gates Foundation has been leading in this effort by example, and hopefully other innovative solutions will soon follow.