15 October 2019

Zero Hunger Series: Droughts stand between the pursuit of ending hunger and poverty

World Food Day, celebrated every year on 16 October, marks the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in 1945 as an organization that deals with global food and agricultural issues. The number of people going hungry has increased since 2014 and the prevalence of undernourishment has remained virtually unchanged in the past 3 years. This reversal in progress sends a clear warning that more must be done urgently if the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger is to be achieved by 2030. 

A profound change of the global food and agricultural system is needed to nourish today's 800 million hungry and the additional 2 billion increase in global population expected by 2030. The University of Pretoria (South Africa), United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) SDG Hub for Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, recognizes the importance of research and innovation in food and agriculture in contributing to this movement of change. In celebration of the 2019 World Food Day, UNAI is collaborating with the university on a series of articles focusing on food security in Africa. In this first article, the University of Pretoria explores the challenges posed by climate change and droughts in reaching zero hunger.

Between 1990 and 2015, the number of people living in extreme poverty has halved. Despite such progress, there are still close to 800 million people in the world who are considered poor and live on less than $1.90 a day and more than 820 million people do not have enough to eat. Three-quarters of people who are considered to be extremely poor live in rural areas and mostly depend on agriculture for their income and food.

Droughts and threats to access to food

The fight to end poverty and hunger through agriculture has become more difficult with the challenge of climate change. Ending poverty, hunger and malnutrition and climate change have to be tackled simultaneously. Droughts and floods and the impact they have on infrastructure, health and diseases are felt most by the poor, and climate change hinders their ability to produce food and their access to resources and basic life necessities.

South Africa has experienced these climate change impacts firsthand in recent years.  Between 2017 and 2017, the country has experienced droughts with  consistently low rainfall, placing immense pressure on agricultural activities. Production of most agricultural products fell below normal, negatively affecting employment and distribution of food. For example, most poor people rely on maize to meet their food needs, but from 2016 to 2017, maize production dropped by more than 55%. For the first time in eight years, South Africa had to rely on imported maize to meet the needs of the population, purchasing a record 5.6 million tonnes at a cost of 9.2 billion rand.

The number of people who are classified as living under extreme poverty in South Africa is estimated to be more than 14 million, and the shortage of maize due to the droughts had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the poor because they suffered from either a shortage of food or high food prices.  

Increased price of food

Food prices began to rise in 2015 as a result of the first year of drought and this was followed by double digit inflation. The high inflation rate remained for most of 2017 and during this two year period the price of 5kg of maize meal increased from R36.39 in 2015 to R45.98 in 2017. This is an increase of 26%, which is more than four times the upper inflation limit. Food inflation was higher than general inflation, and had a greater impact on poor people who saw more of their income going to food expenditures. 

Droughts, as well as other climate change events, increase the complexities of ending poverty, hunger and malnutrition, and thus mitigation efforts must be included in any efforts to address these issues.

Implications for fiscus

South Africa is already providing some cushion for the most vulnerable members of society through various types of social security protection, for example, social grants that target the elderly, persons with disabilities, war veterans, foster childcare and other vulnerable groups. The Department of Social Development accounted for more than 10% of the national budget (R 140 bn), and about 45% (R63 bn) went toward the distribution of social security protection.

If the government were to compensate to cover for food price increases due to droughts effects, then the social security protection budget would have to increase by about 1%. For example, research estimates that the cost to the national treasury, to support the extremely poor population to maintain the pre-drought living standards will be more than R275 million. This estimation was based on the welfare losses suffered because of price increases. These kinds of costs can be afforded on a once-off compensation basis. However, long-term solutions are needed to build people’s capacity, improve infrastructure to manage the distribution of food, as well as mitigate the effects of climate change.

How do we end hunger in the presence of climate change?

The easiest way to end hunger is to build people’s capacities to provide for themselves, but this has to happen in a context that recognises the importance and value of the environment and resources. Resources such as land, water-saving technologies, and seed varieties that perform better even under dry conditions should be provided to poor people. This support should reach these groups in the same way that social security protection (grants) reach all corners of the country. Such efforts would provide a longer term solution by allowing people to better weather the changing climate conditions that impact food production and bring changes to farming methods that can help mitigate food insecurity due to climate change.

By Dr Mmatlou Kalaba, Senior Lecturer, University of Pretoria’s Department of Agriculture Economics, Extension and Rural Development and Elizabeth Mkandawire, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow and Coordinator: UN Academic Impact Hub for SDG2 at the University of Pretoria’s Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being.

Other articles in the series: