Food security, defined by the World Food Summit of 1996 as “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life,” is one of the most important issues of the twenty-first century. Approximately two billion people are intermittently food insecure due to poverty, and 850 million are chronically hungry. The Sahel region of Africa is particularly food insecure for a variety of geographic, demographic, and economic reasons that have resulted in food shortages and famines affecting millions of people and contributed to conflicts in Sudan and Somalia. Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Horn of Africa, the Sahel bridges the gap between the Sahara desert and the southern savanna. Approximately 50 million people live in the Sahel region, which includes parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia. The Sahel has had periodic food shortages and famines following droughts throughout recorded history, the most recent of which occurred in the summer of 2010 when temperatures rose above 120 degrees Fahrenheit in some regions. Seven million people, primarily in Niger and Chad, faced severe food shortages. Although relief agencies have become more effective at anticipating potential famines and responding to existing crises, food security issues in the Sahel have been consistently worsening for the past few decades and show little sign of improving, with some experts predicting another food shortage as early as 2012.
The Sahel’s inconsistent climate has played a significant role in worsening its food security problems. Its intermittent droughts are made more devastating by the fact that they often follow wet periods. During the lush years of a wet period, populations grow and agriculture must expand further into the border region between the Sahel and the desert, which has become increasingly arable. When the rains stop, these borderland crops quickly fail, and the now larger population is more vulnerable to food shortages. This phenomenon has been observed several times throughout the twentieth century but almost certainly has been occurring for much longer. Increasing populations in the Sahel, and the resulting over-farming and over-grazing, have also led to desertification in the region. Chad’s population, for example, grew by three million people in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and food supplies have had a hard time keeping up with the increase. A general shift from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle all over the Sahel has also contributed to desertification, as people who have settled in one area tend to have a more deleterious effect on their environment than nomads. The conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan has exacerbated desertification as well, as the two hundred and fifty thousand refugees who fled into eastern Chad have put additional strain on the environment as they gather vegetation for firewood. In the past few years, scientists have also gathered more and more evidence that the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has been a contributing factor to the Sahel droughts of the late twentieth century.
One of the most hotly debated aspects of food security in the Sahel is the impact of biofuels; some scientists claim that biofuels could be the savior of the region, while others claim that they are a significant cause of food insecurity. Worldwide production has been steadily growing for the past few decades as their use has increased, particularly in transportation. Attributing the food security problems in Africa to a lack of agricultural development, some scientists claim that growing biofuels such as sugar cane, palm oil, and jatropha could be the impetus for an agricultural revolution similar to the Green Revolution in Asia in the 1960s. Biofuel scientists Lee R. Lynd and Jeremy Woods argue that African farmers are largely unable to compete with the prices of North American and European food export; however, because these regions do not currently export biofuels, biofuel production presents a window of opportunity for African agricultural development. Lynd and Woods also claim that some biofuels require fewer nutrients than food crops and can therefore be grown on land that would be unsuitable for food production.
Many other scientists disagree strongly with Lynd and Woods, however, arguing that increasing biofuel production would be actively detrimental to African food security. They doubt that biofuel production would be contained merely to regions which cannot support food crops, leading to a decrease in food production that would exacerbate droughts even further. Additionally, according to research by The Guardian in the summer of 2011, many European and North American corporations have been engaging in massive land grabs in Africa for the purpose of growing biofuels. Foreign investors have no obligation to try to ensure that the benefits of biofuel production are passed on to local African communities, so it is very possible that increased biofuel production in Africa could decrease the land available for food production while providing profits for non-African corporations. Most significantly, biofuel production is driving up the price of food throughout the world, which is very bad for food security as high food prices exacerbate the effects of droughts and make them much more likely to result in famine. The increasingly globalized market for food means that even biofuel production in other regions can affect the prices of food in Africa. As an example of this phenomenon, the recent abolishment of some ethanol subsidies in the United States is predicted to lead to a slight decrease in world food prices.
Food security in the Sahel is a complex issue and presents no easy solutions. Combating desertification, already very difficult, becomes even more challenging when the affected region includes thirteen countries. Although Lynd and Woods may be wrong about the mechanism, it seems clear that their larger point about the necessity of a sustainable agricultural revolution in Africa is correct if food shortages and famines in the Sahel are to be avoided in the future.
Staff Writer: Amy Lifland