Regional Conference for Africa considers dual challenge

Agriculture ministers and other officials from 51 countries participating in the twentieth FAO Regional Conference for Africa from 16 to 20 February faced two major challenges - making African agriculture both more productive and less destructive.

Agriculture in much of Africa must rapidly become more productive in order to meet the World Food Summit (WFS) goal of reducing the number of hungry people in the world by half by the year 2015. Agriculture is the dominant sector in most African economies, accounting for 40 percent of regional GDP in 1997. Yet, according to a paper presented to the Conference, the availability of agricultural land per caput is expected to drop from 0.80 hectares in 1997 to 0.38 hectares in the year 2020, mainly because of population pressure. So agricultural output will need to increase rapidly to feed a population that grows by 3 percent annually.

In his address to the Conference, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf called for an increase in irrigated agriculture throughout the continent to boost production and address food deficiences.

"There can be no food security in Africa without controlled ulilization and conservation of water resources and without intensifying production systems," Diouf said. "Irrigation is an important element of security in the face of widely fluctuating rainfall. It is also an ingredient of intensification considering that irrigated land is twice as productive as rainfed land."

At the same time, urgent action is required to make African agriculture less destructive. "Sub-Saharan Africa risks being marginalized from the mainstream world economy because of the failure of many countries in the region to adopt evironmentally sustainable agricultural practics to improve productivity and counter the process of natural resource degradation," according to a press release issued recently. Cropping activities, overgrazing, overfishing and deforestation are cited as the main causes of natural resource degradation in the subregion.

World Food Summit follow-up on the agenda
The Regional Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, marked an opportunity for African ministers to assess results of the first year of implementation of the WFS Plan of Action.

"African countries participated massively and at the highest political level in the World Food Summit, testifying to their concern about food security and their commitment to addressing the problem in their national contexts", said Kay Killingsworth, Special Advisor to Director-General Diouf on World Food Summit follow-up.

Currently half of the low-income, food-deficit countries (LIFDCs) that face the greatest difficulties in reducing hunger and malnutrition are found in Africa. Moreover, while in other regions the absolute number of hungry is expected to decrease, albeit slowly, in the coming decade, in Africa, it is projected to grow.

Achieving the goals set by the Summit, Killingsworth said, "requires a significant acceleration of the current global rate of progress in reducing undernutrition. But in Africa we have actually to reverse a trend."

Natural resource degradation threatens economies and food security
Accelerating progress without increasing environmental degradation will also mean reversing a trend, according to the report "Agricultural policies for sustainable use and management of natural resources in Africa," prepared for the Conference.

The report indicates that rapid population growth has disrupted the delicate balance between traditional agricultural methods and the natural resource base. Depletion of soil nutrients, overgrazing, overfishing and deforestation have severely degraded the natural resources essential to future production. The report highlights numerous examples of how current farming practices have affected:

Soil. It is estimated, for example, that more than 800 million hectares, representing fully 60 percent of the total land area in the semi-arid Sahel region, are affected or threatened by human-induced degradation. Some 224 million hectares in the Sahel are already severely degraded. Major causes of soil degradation include cropping activities, such as reduced fallow periods, inadequate replenishment of soil nutrients and poorly managed irrigation, and overgrazing.

Forests. Increasing demand for fuelwood, which accounted for almost 90 percent of roundwood produced in 1990, has accelerated destruction of forests that now cover about one-third of the continent. Every year, an area of about four million hectares (roughly the size of Switzerland) is deforested.

Water. Run-off of fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals has been identified as a major cause of pollution and poorly managed irrigation has lowered water tables, decreased water quality and caused land subsidence and saltwater intrusion in coastal areas.

Fish stocks. Overfishing and the use of inappropriate fishing techniques has depleted fish stocks both in lakes and rivers and in marine waters.

The report urges policy-makers to adopt policies designed to achieve broad-based, gender sensitive agricultural growth and development, while preserving the natural resource base and improving its long-term productive capacity. Specific recommendations in the report include:

  • explore approaches to change in indigenous land tenure systems, and enact laws that specify tenancy rights and ensure security even under customary land tenure systems;
  • encourage increased use of fertilizers through improved input procurement and delivery systems;
  • promote community involvement in the management of livestock resources, improve animal husbandry and privatize veterinary services, and encourage destocking through education and better market links and information.
  • adopt a participatory approach to irrigation policy formulation and appraisal, and encourage the development of farmer-owned and -operated irrigation infrastructure.
  • design proper fisheries management framework and strengthen regional cooperation.
  • promote private sector participation in timber and fuelwood planting, privatize the reforestation services, reassess stumpage fees, and facilitate soft credit schemes for tree and fuelwood planting, reforestation and rehabilitation of degraded areas.

26 February 1998

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