Future-proofing food security in a hotter and drier world

A girl holds a globe as she participates in a protest in Mumbai, India, Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. Protestors gathered in response to a day of worldwide demonstrations calling for action to guard against climate change. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

We are in the middle of a South African heatwave. The Northern hemisphere has just completed a very uncomfortable summer with July 2019 being the hottest July in recorded history. The start of the Southern hemisphere spring appears to be completing the 2019 weather cycle in competition with the North – promising a hot, dry summer with intervals of short, intense rainfall spells. In other words, more threats to our food security.

In the midst of this, World Food Day 2019, celebrated on 15 October, continued to leave us uncomfortable. While considerable progress has been made in various parts of the world, we still have 821 million people that suffer from chronic undernourishment. That’s more than 10% of the world’s population. The number for South Africa, according to StatsSA is 6.8 million people that are chronically hungry, this means going to bed on an empty stomach daily. In this mix are the 500 000 households with children that are subject to these same hunger pangs. We add to this the growing global epidemic of obesity and malnutrition to complete the ticking time-bomb of the global nutrition challenge of the 21st century.

We also know that undernutrition is a central pillar of the poverty trap. Poverty restricts access to food. This leads to restricted development both physically and cognitive development. This is super-critical in the first 90 days of a child’s life and in general if this persists for the first 4 years – the damage is largely irreversible. This in turn limits economic activity and productivity which perpetuates the poverty, and the cycle continues inter-generationally. The outlook is dimmed by the prospect of an even more difficult environment on the back of climate change and increased frequency of extreme weather events like droughts and floods. How do we organize for future food security to enable the next generation to successfully escape the poverty trap in South Africa and the world?

The key engines to future proof food security include the following. First is the toolbox of the 4th Industrial Revolution. Higher levels of computation and artificial intelligence enables the old dream of precision agriculture. Optimally using key resources like water, energy, fertilizers and other growth enablers on the back of better more accessible real time information to drive efficient agriculture and higher productivity. But, an important anxiety associated with these interventions is automation, and the potential negative impact that will have on jobs and livelihoods. 4IR can in fact stimulate and achieve exactly the opposite. Currently 70% of the world’s food is produced by 500 million small scale farmers. Mobile technology tools will enable these 500 million farmers to have a reasonable component of real-time information to perform state-of-the-art precision agriculture on the smallest of plots – increasing productivity and drastically reducing costs.

Secondly, with the advent of new innovations like the concepts like Social Franchising can double the number of small-scale farmers and therefore agricultural productivity in the next ten years globally. Social franchising has been successfully piloted by the Water Research Commission and is a new model for enterprise development where someone can become with a zero financial investment with access to a support structure for an initial period. The WRC pilot has created 20 companies, each now employing at least 3 people and still in business three years on. This may be a viable mechanism for emerging farmers in South Africa and means to achieve a global target of 1 billion small-scale farmers and many more entrepreneurs in the food value chain.

But these interventions may prove ineffective against the vagaries of heatwaves and extreme weather events catalyzed by climate change. There is also the matter of the obesity and malnutrition epidemic. Key to food security resilience in diversity of staples. If these new staple crops have the added benefits of higher nutrition levels and greater tolerance to drier conditions, then we truly have a winning solution. The third intervention is thus underutilized and orphan crops. They are sometimes also referred to as traditional crops, because our wise ancestors had an important handle on food security, albeit on a smaller scale, and are in most cases indigenous. 

Research has shown that in general they use much less water than their exotic mainstream monoculture cousins – making them more resilient to drought conditions. They are also more nutritious with higher levels of iron and trace elements, becoming an important bastion against malnutrition. Examples include well known sweet potato, Bambara groundnut, cowpeas, spider plant and indigenous spinach – amaranthus or morogo. The super-resilient include sorghum which is both drought tolerant as well as tolerant to water-logging.

The Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s massified agriculture in a mono-culture paradigm to stave off mass hunger and was very successful. The 21st century agricultural revolution lies in a New Diversification in a resource efficient and resilient agricultural model enabled by the innovations of the 4th industrial revolution.


Dhesigen Naidoo is CEO of the Water Research Commission.