The current food crisis in the Horn of Africa has fast become a humanitarian disaster. According to World Vision UK, the crisis has affected in excess of 6 million people in Ethiopia, 2 million in Uganda, 3 million in Somalia and 10 million in Kenya.
The ongoing effects of the food crisis are devastating. In northern Kenya, the impact of the drought and rising food costs has been largely felt amongst the pastoralist community, where in excess of 70% of people’s livelihoods have been affected. In Turkana, for example, one in four children suffer from acute malnutrition. Across Ethiopia, the cost of food has increased by more than 50% and in the Karamoja region of Uganda, 70% of residents are receiving food aid following insufficient rains over three consecutive years. In Somalia, a country that has existed without a formal government for the past 18 years, increased fighting and instability has resulted in a steep increase in the price of food and water, a problem compounded by the inability of aid agencies to deliver vital supplies. In some regions water costs have increased by 1,000% in recent months. With widespread malnutrition across the country, it is currently estimated that one in six Somali children are acutely malnourished.
There is not one single catalyst for the current food crisis. A myriad of factors including drought, poverty, rising food prices, unemployment, landlessness, lack of drinking water and civil conflict are all commonly cited as contributing factors. The impact of population growth on food crises, however, is commonly overlooked.
The countries currently affected by the food crisis in the Horn of Africa have all witnessed a decrease in fertility rates over recent decades. In spite of this decrease, population momentum, where high fertility in the previous generation has resulted in a large portion of the population being of childbearing age, means that the populations of these countries continue to grow rapidly. In Kenya, for example, where according to the US Census Bureau fertility has decreased from 7.6 in 1980 to its current rate of 4.2, the country’s population continues to increase at a rate of 2.6% per year.
The sustained and rapid population growth occurring in the Horn of Africa raises serious concerns over food supply. According to the Principal Policy Analyst at the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, John Omiti, “population growth is higher than our ability to produce food. We need to address the demographic challenge to balance supply and demand.”
Although food production was largely able to cater for the exponential growth in world population that occurred during the 20th century, population growth within Africa is beginning to outpace food supply. Between 2007 and 2025, food production in Africa must increase from its current production level of 2.2 billion tonnes to 3 billion tonnes to keep up with population growth. In light of this and the recent food crisis, the question arises: are we heading towards the Malthusian trap, whereby population growth will outstrip food supply?
Due to trade, aid and increased technological innovation as a result of the Industrial Revolution, it is unlikely that Malthus’ visions will be felt on a large scale. It is plausible, however, to suggest a strong correlation between high fertility and food insecurity.
Continuously high rates of fertility amongst subsistence farmers and the associated increase in population density result in the further sub-division of family plots, thereby placing increased pressure on the success of crops. When food shortages do occur, moreover, it is the poor who are most affected. With decreases in food supply, those already forced to live on the smallest of rations are confronted with a simultaneous increase in the price of food. Food affordability therefore becomes a major concern, as the poorest members of society already spend 50-70% of their incomes on food.
With poverty inextricably linked to hunger, high fertility rates in the countries of the Horn of Africa have proven a major hurdle to economic prosperity and therefore food security. The persistence of high fertility in the Horn of Africa has precluded the countries in the region from capitalising on what is commonly referred to as the "demographic dividend". This occurs in countries in transition from high to low fertility, where there is a window of opportunity to achieve economic growth via an increased ratio of workers to non-workers. When coupled with government initiatives and increased foreign investment, a demographic dividend can induce economic growth and increase government revenue via the collection of income tax. A decrease in the number of dependents not only minimises the impact of sub-dividing land within families, it also reduces constraints to family savings that can in turn provide families with a valuable safety net.
Although Malthus’s grand claim that unchecked population growth will inevitably result in widespread food shortages remains unproven, high fertility rates do provide a significant obstacle to food security. A decrease in fertility would therefore go some way to minimising the risk of future food crises.
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