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The Looming Global Food Crisis: The China-Nigeria Case study (Volume 1)

By Prince Samuel. J. Samuel

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic in November 2019, the issue of food insecurity was a major concern for world’s leaders across the globe. For instance, between January-June 2019, reports revealed that Nigerians spent a total of N334.3 billion on food importation and other items, representing an increase of 47% in comparison with the 2018 reports. (Source: NBS). In the same vein, reports indicate that food (mainly vegetable, meat, cereals) import trends in South Africa in 2019 was valued at US$88.1 billion while the country’s top five food suppliers include: China, United States, Argentina, Germany and United Kingdom.

The increasing food import by other countries is not limited to developing countries; even leading economy like China is developing a strategic food storage program. Since there is no corresponding growth in the population, the growth and expansion in Chinese food import is informed by the increasing stocking up food. The issue of food insecurity has always been a major concern for the Chinese government. This is not unconnected to its huge population. Consequently, how China would sufficiently feed its 1.4 billion people has invariably been of critical concern. Over the years, China has been the world’s largest importer of food, particularly agro products and consumer-related products. Reports have shown that the Chinese government depends largely on other countries in order to adequately food its people. However, Covid-19 crisis has significantly impaired the global supply chain. As a result, China remains one of the countries that has been severely affected by the situation in terms of supply food chain. Although the Chinese President, Xi Jinping has not publicly admitted the food crisis bedevilling his country, available reports have shown the reality on ground—food shortage.   

On Tuesday, 11th August, 2020 Xi Jinping spoke about “Operation Empty Plate” campaign. Although he started the campaign in 2013, targeting extravagant lifestyle of Chinese officials, focus has currently shifted to every China’s citizen. The Chinese President has asked his people to stop wasting food and eat prudently, a logical ideology though. However, the report further disclosed that China’s farmers had suffered great loss as a result of mass flooding that destroyed their crops. So, in order to provide enough food for its people, China imports 20 – 30% of its food grains. Between 2003 and 2017, China was the world’s agriculture market. Hence its food imports grew from $14 billion to $105 billion. From the top 10 imports partners alone, China imports food worth $75.3 billion from nine countries across the world. Here is a breakdown: from Brazil $22.7 billion; the US $18.1billion; Canada $5.62billion; Australia $5.55billion; New Zealand $5.35 billion; Indonesia $4.3billion; Thailand $4.13; Hong Kong $3.37 billion; Argentina $3.34 billion and France $2.84 billion. Thus, China relies on the world to feed its people.

Moreover, early 2020, there were indications that China had started another food storage program. In June 2020, China imported 910, 000 tons of wheat, signifying 197% increase on year-on-year. The country imported 880, 000 tons of corn, a year-on-year increase of 23%. Importation of sorghum rose to 680, 000 tons while sugar was 140, 000 tons, representing 196% increase year-on-year. (Source: WION).

In soybeans, China remains the world’s top market for the product. Hence the Chinese’s consumption of soybean has been on the rise over the years. Consumption soared up from 74.85 million tonnes in 2012 to 112.18 million tonnes in 2017. In 2017, soybeans imported from Brazil and the US reached 50.93 million tonnes and 32.85 million tons respectively, representing 53.3% and 34.4% one-to-one of the total soybean imports. However, based on China’s huge population, reports have revealed that China’s demand for soybeans will continue to surge in subsequent years, a situation that was eventually revealed between 2019 and 2020 in different available reports.  In December 2019, China’s soybean imports surged up to 67% from previous year to a 19-month-high. Throughout the year, soybean imports reached 88.51 million tonnes, representing a rise from 88.03 million tonnes in 2018. (Source: Reuters, China Customs). Earlier in 2020, China’s soybean imports rose to 14.2% year-on-year (January and February 2020), amounting to a rise from 11.83 million tonnes to 13.51 million tonnes in the previous year. (Source: BEIJING, Reuters). Reports indicates that Brazil’s soybeans shipments to China hit a monthly record of 9.3million tonnes in April 2020 (Source: Shipbrokers Braemar ACM). Another report revealed that China has committed $36.3 billion to buy agricultural products from the US, including soybeans, in 2020 and $43.3 billion in 2021, under the trade deal that was signed January 15, 2020. No doubt, the aforementioned reports affirmed the impending food shortage about to hit China.  

Drought, climate change and food security: A global concern

According to World Bank, 40% of the world’s population resides in 275 transboundary river basins, which accounts for 60% of the world’s freshwater flows. Reports have shown that closely 25% of the world’s population faces a water crisis. According data released by the World Resources Institute (WRI), in 2019, 17 countries were reported to have experienced “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress. This shows that approximately one-quarter of the world’s population (about 1.7 billion people) at present faces water dearth. (Source: Science alert). The reports further revealed that twelve out of the 17 countries are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). (Source: World Resources Institutes). According to the World Bank, “these regions have the greatest expected economic losses from climate-related water scarcity, estimated at 6-14% of GDP by 2050.”

It has been projected that the global population would reach 10 billion people by 2050. Consequently, the demand for food and water is anticipated to surge. Farming accounts for almost 70% of all water withdrawals, and up to 95% in some developing countries. Hence agriculture remains a major sector affected by water shortage. One of the major causes of water scarcity is not unconnected to climate change, a situation that has been predicted to deepen, resulting in extreme dearth of water with adverse effect on agriculture. (Source: FAO, UN). This could be the reason global super powers are now turning massively to agriculture while some of them are storing food aggressively.

Africa’s scenario

Africa’s population could double its current 1.3 billion (2019) by 2050. Findings have shown that more than half of the world’s population growth will occur in Africa by 2050. While the continent was still battling with food shortage as a result of floods, drought and devastating diseases, the Covid-19 pandemic has compounded the situation, dealing a big blow to farmers across borders. Consequently, the situation has led to decline in the production and availability of food, affecting many SMEs that are essential to food supply chains. Unfortunately, Africa’s agriculture sector still lacks the technological innovation that could aid the continent to provide sufficient food for its people. 

As of 2018, Africa imported huge food from various countries across the world, costing more than $47 billion. “The recent devaluation of several African currencies, combined with declining commodity prices, has put further stress on African countries’ capacity to ensure food and nutrition security.” (Culled from African In Focus). According to McKinsey report, “about 23% of Africa’s GDP comes from agriculture while 60% of its economically active population live on agriculture.” Unfortunately, the pandemic has greatly affected this critical area of Africa’s economies.

Coupled with above, are security challenges from political, religious or ethnic that has gone further to worsen an already bad situation. The internecine wars ravaging many African states is limping investment in development including agriculture. From ISIS in North Africa, Boko Haram in West Africa, are features straining the economy.

Climate change

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has equally called for transformation in food systems in order to achieve a sustainable and an inclusive global economy. According to him, “We cannot forget that food systems contribute up to 29% of all greenhouse gas emissions, including 44% of methane, and are having a negative impact on biodiversity.” Consequently, Guterres admonished countries to build food systems that could address the needs of producers and workers. Mr. Guterres further stressed that “Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food emergency that could have long term impacts on hundreds of millions of children and adults.”

Action steps

With these are many others, it is imperative for leadership within and outside Africa, to take notice and begin to take some deliberate action plans to minimize if not eliminate the impending doom. Some quick actions should include the following:

  • Improved technological innovation: although governments across Africa have provided various intervention programmes to curtail the economic impact of the pandemic, the situation requires long-term innovative and strategic solutions. In order for Africa to survive the impending food shortage, Africa’s farmers, governments, policy-makers and concerned stakeholders in the agribusinesses must come up with a different approach to agriculture business, particularly technological innovations.
  • High quality food: the need to achieve high quality food products with the use of technologies cannot be overemphasised. Consequently, technological innovations will invariably promote improved economic growth and development while food losses will be drastically curtailed during harvest and post-harvest activities. Also, it will help in the effective storage of harvested products with a view to increasing the value of harvested goods.
  • Improved irrigation systems: another vital area where technology should be used to improve food security is in the area of soil and water management. This is needed in order to achieve efficient irrigation technologies and thus address water constraints, being one of the major challenges confronting farmers, particular in the Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Improved pest and disease control: pest and disease control has been one of the critical challenges that poses threat to food security in Africa. The global chemical and biological pesticide control have been a fast-growing market over the years. Hence focus on innovations and technological development with a view to achieving healthy produce remains critical to securing sufficient food.
  • Supply chain: there is need for new approach to supply chain, food safety procedures and well-functioning and resilient food system architecture in order for Africa to able to feed its growing population. No doubt, modern agriculture technologies remain essential in order for Africa’s food systems to become more sustainable and resourceful. Therefore, there is the need to harness science and technology for the numerous scopes of food security.
  • Research and development: part of the steps toward food security is by promoting research and innovations that focus on smallholder farmers with a view to expanding capacity and infrastructure development that promotes and strengthens agricultural innovation among technologists, farmers and relevant stakeholders.
  • Water management: in view of the foregoing, investing in water management and infrastructure cannot be overemphasised. Such investments, to a large extent, will definitely create jobs and increase economic growth and development across nations.
  • Increase in food production: “In order to feed more than 9 billion people, food production must increase by 50% by 2050.  Grain remains the most important source of calories for the majority of the world’s population. In particular, the annual demand for maize, wheat and rice is expected to reach 3.3 billion tonnes by 2050.” (Sources: World Resources Institute; United Nations)

In view of the foregoing, it is important for Africa to learn two major lessons to learn:

  1. If countries that are more technologically advanced are pushing for more agriculture, buying and storing food, then, Africa with less mechanisation and less agriculture growth should rise to the occasion by maximising its huge potentials that lie in the agriculture sector.
  2. It is important that African leaders should come to terms by strengthening regional trans-border trades with a view to expanding the capacity and productivity in the agro business.  
  3. The world will not wait for Africa to put its house in order. Instead innovation, will make Africa to be irrelevant in the equation.
  4.  China as it buys up food, is also ramping up production of food with innovation, developing low level technology. Africa can learn from this.

While the world remains a global village, it is critical for Africa, still struggling to catch up to intensifying preparation to mitigate against imminent food shortages as there may not be anywhere to run to.

Prince Samuel. J. Samuel

Principal Partner, Sensale Research Group

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