food insecurity

Food Insecurity: Vicious Cycle of Hunger

Food insecurity remains a key challenge for Ethiopia. More than eight million people are in need of urgent assistance and 70Pct of the country’s population earns below USD1.9 a day. More than 30,000 children, on average, with severe acute malnutrition (SAM) are admitted for treatment every month. Internal conflicts and climatic shocks adversely impact people’s livelihoods, making them unable to meet their basic needs, while exacerbating the food insecurity situation in the country. The failure to transform the agriculture sector, whose contribution to the economy has declined but remains a source of revenue for over three-fourths of the population, has made many food-insecure. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale explores.

Making a living had never been simple for Bogale Moto, a farmer and father of seven with six living with him, in a small rural town situated near Arbaminch, state of South Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNPR). Just as difficult is the responsibility of feeding seven people, including his wife. Highly dependent on 0.5ha of land that he inherited from his father, Bogale has a mango farm and harvests once every year. And this only happens if there is sufficient rainfall, which is becoming increasingly rare in recent years with the variability of climate change.

“A decade ago, I was at least able to live hand to mouth. But in the last five years, the productivity of my land has dwindled, even though the cost of living has gone through the roof,” said the frustrated farmer, Bogale, who hardly survives every month even though he supplements his income by working as a security guard in Arbaminch. “In the past two years, we are missing meals as we don’t have enough money to feed ourselves. Starvation is now normal for our family and many of our neighbors.”

Even though Ethiopia has managed to transform from being a symbol of poverty and conflict to one of the fastest growing economies globally, drought and famine remain high, exacerbating the food insecurity situation in the Horn of African country. It is further worsened by the political instability that was especially severe over the past two years which displaced more than three million people (later declining to below half a million). Food insecurity, thus, remains an alarming issue requiring the attention of policymakers, non-governmental organizations and researchers.

Global Humanitarian Overview (GHO), which underestimated Ethiopia’s need assessment for 2019 at 6.5 million people, puts USD973 million as the required amount to address the crisis in Ethiopia in 2020—the highest after Yemen, Syria, Sudan, and Somalia. According to Integrated Acute Food Insecurity Analysis (IPC), on the other hand, about 8.5 million Ethiopians will be facing severe acute food insecurity between February and June 2020, double the number registered a decade ago.

However, Debebe Zewde, Communications Manager of the National Disaster Risk Management of Ethiopia, argues the figures produced by foreign organizations are unacceptable. “Many international organizations like the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) take information and data from public institutions in Ethiopia, but they compile the reports in order to collect more funding for themselves. What matters in Ethiopia should be concerning only for the Ethiopian government,” Debebe says.

Although they do not deny the figures, Ethiopian officials argue the legitimacy of the figures disclosed by humanitarian institutions. Nonetheless, the government admits there are already 7.8 million Ethiopians receiving monthly food rations over the past couple of years. This is excluding the 7.9 million people receiving direct support under the productive safety net program (PSNP), according to Debebe. Most of the population affected by the El Nino induced drought and flood are supported under PSNP, the largest of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa which was also introduced for the growing urban poor, since last year.

“The share of poor and food insecure people in Ethiopia seems to decrease over time. However, as there has been significant population growth, the absolute number of people that are poor or food insecure has not changed that much (and might have even increased slightly),” said Bart Minten, Senior Research Fellow and Head of International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) Ethiopia office. “Luckily, we have had successful safety net programs in the country that has helped in an important way to assure food security for a large vulnerable part of Ethiopia’s population.”

Around 7.8 million Ethiopians are receiving 15kg of cereal (mainly wheat and maize) and 4kg pulses, and 1.5 liters edible oil, among other items, monthly. This is despite the fact that an individual needs 2,100 kilo calories (2.1 million calories) daily to be food secure. This means a person needs 240kg of wheat annually or 0.66 kilograms of wheat each day, supposing that the calorie source must be diversified. Otherwise, less calorie grains need to be higher in volume.

However, both official reports by the Ethiopian government and independent humanitarian reports signals the depletion of the capacity of the economy in absorbing shocks. This is escorted mainly by three recent inflammatory developments, which are desert locust swarms and climate change, conflict, and inflation and poor economic performance.

Locust Invasion, Climate Change
Rural livelihood systems of Ethiopia involve crop cultivation, pastoralism, and agro-pastoralism, all of which are highly sensitive to the climate. The same is true for food insecurity patterns, which are seasonal and dependent on rainfall; with hunger trends significantly increasing during the dry season. The rise in year-to-year climate variability means lower agricultural production with negative effects on food security. Even more, it may also bring unexpected shocks, with the latest being the invasion of locust swarms in major parts of the country.

Dozens of officials at the plant protection department of the Ministry of Agriculture are being tested by the fight against the nightmare that is the desert locust, which has been roaming the country for months. The department has been trying to prevent over 200 locust clans (groups) that are coming and going through five border corridors, with just four chemical spraying airplanes and standby fuel trucks. Manifesting on over 65,000 hectares of land in 70 woredas in Amhara, Tigray, Somali, Afar, South, and Oromia regions, the desert locust is a major setback for food security in eastern Ethiopia, which has not fully recovered from the severe droughts and floods seen since the 2016 El Niño phenomenon.

Close to 7.9 million people in these parts of the country are already living on monthly food and cash rationing due to internal displacement and diminishing agricultural production, in addition to the drought. “The desert locust has no significant impact upon national agricultural output for this harvesting season (called Meher). As harvesting is already finalized, covering 13.7 million hectares, the locust is massively devouring pasture and forest,” argues Zebdios Sahlato, Plant Protection Director at the Ministry.

While the assessment of the impact of locust swarms on agriculture is ongoing, the Ministry announced that this year’s agricultural production increased to 372 million quintals, equaling the forecasted and expected amount for the year. Germame Garuma, Director of Agriculture Extension Program at the Ministry, completely downplays the impact of the swarms for the increase in number of people exposed to food insecurity in Ethiopia.

“Confidently, Ethiopia has enough agricultural production to ensure self-sufficiency. There is no threat of further food insecurity. However, the panic, inflation, hoarding, an inefficient market, and significant volumes of grain being smuggled out of Ethiopia can worsen food insecurity.”

The officials totally downplay the impact of the huge size of the locust invasion in the country, contrary to the damaging characteristics of the species. It has affected sorghum production and destroyed more than 300ha of sugarcane plantations at Wonji Sugar Plant. The locust’s consuming of grazing land and forest can reduce milk productivity in the lowlands.

Understanding the connection to the ever-changing global climate, the UN is calling for international help to bring the locust swarms under control. Its constituent, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), has collected more than USD40 million funding thus far to fight the spread of the swarms in east African nations, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia.

Currently, a total of USD 76 million is needed to fight the desert locust swarm in east Africa, less than half of which is collected. “Do nothing and WFP will need fifteen times the current requirement, USD1.1 billion, to feed in excess of 13 million people that would potentially be devastated by the loss of crop and livelihoods in the region,” tweeted David Beasley, WFP Chief.

Originally, the desert locust migrated from the worsening drought in Yemen. The unusually late and intense rains in Somalia and eastern part Ethiopia created fertile conditions for the locust to stay and reproduce, once they arrived in east Africa. Now locusts are swarming in four directions in Ethiopia. This is feared to be destructive as they have been laying millions of eggs along their migratory path during their first arrival in Ethiopia. “We must act immediately and at scale to combat and contain this invasion,” said David Phiri, FAO‘s sub-regional coordinator for eastern Africa. “As the rains start in March there will be a new wave of locust breeding. Now is therefore the best time to control the swarms and safeguard people’s livelihoods and food security.”

Citing the high levels of food insecurity in the east African region with more than 19 million people facing hunger because of drought and flooding, FAO further warned that, if left unchecked, the number of desert locusts could grow by 500 times by June, with recent weather in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia creating a fertile condition for reproduction. “Breeding and hatching in Somali, Oromia, and SNNPR regions, including the Rift Valley, continue to be reported. Movements further north can be expected, as well as from adjacent areas in Somalia and Kenya,” said FAO, in its daily report published on February 25, 2020.

The climate variability has caused the locust invasion to be the worst crisis affecting the country, with the food security situation deteriorating in the southern and south-eastern pastoral areas of Somali, the Bale lowlands, parts of Guji, and east and west Hararghe zones of Oromia. This is due to the delayed, erratically distributed, and below normal cumulative rainfall, according to the latest food security outlook of the country published by USAID’s Famine Early Warning System, just a month ago.

So far, the whole of eastern Ethiopia, including the Somali and Afar regions, eastern parts of the Oromia and Amhara regions, and the southern part of Tigray has been highly affected by fluctuating rain since 2016. Ethiopia’s pastoralists and livestock, which is saturated in these areas, are also severely affected, in addition to the significant reduction in cultivation areas. This has adversely impacted livestock productivity and household incomes; coupled with the ongoing recovery from the 2016/17 drought, it has resulted in high levels of livestock deaths.

Inflation, Economic Disarray
Rising inflation has adversely impacted the purchasing power of the poor, while pushing more people to the food insecurity net. Annual food and beverages inflation sprinted to 19.8pct in 2018/19, up from 14.1Pct the previous year, according to the National Bank of Ethiopia. This is a record high since the historic record high 54pct headline inflation in 2011.

With the persistence of internal conflicts and drought, inflation remains high in most of the regional states, although the government has implemented stringent monetary and fiscal policies in order to control inflationary pressures, and if possible, keep inflation under single digits.

The fact that government buys grains from the domestic market and the logistical stranding of imported food aid, has also contributed to inflation. Meanwhile, addressing food insecurity by aid has almost become impossible because of the rising levels of corruption, involving both high- and low-level officials. Aid food re-enters the market, or is only given to people who have relations with the officials, according to insiders. In order to prevent this, the Ethiopian government is running a pilot project in the Somali region to implement a digitalized aid transferring system to ensure assistance is given for the right people.

Access to markets for both buyers and sellers, on the other hand, is impacted by flooding events that damage roads. Further, the complete absence of such infrastructures, further exacerbates inflationary pressures and deteriorates the food security situation. Additionally, the rise in cash circulating in the market due to PSNP, the rising cost of fuel and spare parts, security related issues to transport food from surplus areas to those with deficits, and an increased demand for food items also have their fair share in the inflationary pressures that are now out of control throughout the country. This has forced many to live in poverty.

People living in poverty, calculated based on the assumption that one can survive with USD0.6 per day, has reduced from 45.4Pct of the population in 2000 to 23pct now, according to the Planning Commission. However, based on the World Bank’s absolute poverty line, currently set at USD1.90 per person per day, the number reaches as high as 70Pct of the population. Further worrying is the fact that poverty, even using government’s computation, has increased in absolute terms, largely owing to the rise in the cost of living and alarming rise in population, estimated to now reach 112 million.

Hunger and undernutrition among Ethiopians remain problematically high, despite showing a decline. In the 2019 Global Hunger Index, Ethiopia ranked 97th out of 117 qualifying countries with a score of 28.9, suffering from a level of hunger that is serious. While this serves as evidence that food insecurity is worsening, the seriousness of the problem differs across regions. Areas of the greatest concern where poor households are facing difficulties in meeting their minimum food needs include east and west Hararghe, southeastern Oromia including the Bale lowlands, parts of Guji and Borena, northern Amhara, Somali region, and southern Tigray, according to the latest outlook of USAID’s Famine Early Warning System.

Be that as it may, the failure to transform the agriculture sector has had its share for the deterioration of the food security situation in the country. Agriculture’s share of the economy has dwindled from contributing half of the country’s GDP to 34Pct in the last fiscal year. However, more than three-fourths of Ethiopians are still dependent upon the sector. The service sector, accounting for 40Pct of the country’s GDP, alongside industry, remain under the control of a small slice of the population.

However, for Minten, Ethiopia’s has had very good agricultural performance over the past few decades. “Agricultural production has increased significantly. In the beginning of the growth period, it was mostly due to land expansion but in more recent years, we see that land expansion has almost come to a halt and land intensification is increasingly the driver of agricultural growth,” he says.

“Use of chemical fertilizers has tripled over the last decade, while agricultural market performance has also improved, partly due to large investments in improved roads and increased competition between traders and we now see marketing margins between major surplus and deficit regions that are significantly smaller than before.”

Miressa Fitte, Deputy Head of Oromia Land Administration and Use Bureau, disagrees. “Food insecurity has been a problem of the lowlands stricken by drought and areas that have missed farming seasons due to internal displacement and conflict. But currently it is also becoming an issue of the highlands, mainly due to the absence of farmlands for the increasing numbers of youth. This signals that intensive farming is critical in the highlands,” says Miressa.

Bechaye Tesfaye, Assistant Professor at the Center for Food Security Studies at the Addis Ababa University, agrees. “Decreasing farmland area per farmer means people are only getting plots of land to install shelter, thus food insecurity is worsening in Ethiopia. Landlessness and over-ploughing of the highlands should have been relieved by reducing the population pressure in rural areas by using urbanization and industrialization policies,” according to him.

Bechaye, who believes food insecurity is a result of interwoven problems both in the political and economic realms, believes the blanket approach of the agricultural extension program must change. “Ethiopia has highly diversified weather, ranging from the hottest lowland on earth to the chilliest. Various crops and livestock can be produced in these potential ranges,” he says. For instance, the lowland is ideal for red meat livestock rearing, according to him.
“Various crops can be cultivated with the highland’s weather, if only we had developed flexible extension programs that are well-adapted to the fast-changing weather in a year’s time,” he adds. “It is important to avail various seeds and technologies that go with the fluctuating temperature and to train farmers. “Equally important is the modernization and straightening of the domestic market structure of agricultural products.”

Uncovering the Way Forward
Zero hunger is amongst the listed objectives that the international community wants to achieve in the next decade. It is also blended with national strategies of developing countries like Ethiopia. However, despite such attempts, governments and aid organizations, including UN agencies, are criticized for being busy ‘fire-fighting’, rather than addressing the issue at the grass roots level, according to experts.

The pillar of Ethiopia’s food security strategy rests on improving production and productivity in agriculture, which in turn relies on small-scale farmers in the highland areas of the country. “Ethiopians can feed themselves if they are able to produce thrice yearly with small-scale farming in the highlands. This can definitely produce surpluses if improved seeds, inputs, and technologies are used effectively,” added Miressa.

However, Bechaye begs to differ. “Ethiopia’s highlands have been over-ploughed for centuries without proper soil treatment. On top of that, over the last two decades, the farmers were blindly and politically forced to overdose on fertilizer not specifically prescribed for the soil, further deteriorated the soil content, hence the need for curing,” he says. “All in all, focusing on highland agriculture to sustainably become food secure is not a step in the right direction. Rather, it is better to diversify agriculture, including towards lowland farming.”

Minten, on the other hand, says Ethiopia has not made enough investments in developing drought-resistant crops. “Making sure that such stress-resistant seeds are widely available is important for Ethiopia to move forward, in addition to improved private sector participation—in synergy with the public sector—in the development and distribution of such seeds is seemingly called for,” Minten suggests. “Agriculture must stay a priority and not be neglected, especially given the large number of poor people making a livelihood through agricultural and rural areas.”

Experts underlie Ethiopia needs to allocate appropriate financing and manpower to create an enabling environment to let the agricultural sector flourish. “Ethiopia can also provide better comparative advantages for farmers by diversifying into high-value agricultural crops, which might mean not becoming self-sufficient in every crop but making enough money from other high-value agricultural crops to pay for the needed agricultural products,” Minten says. “The international trading situation is also in favor of this since the needed technologies, such as hybrid seeds and agro-chemicals, can be easily imported. This would allow the agricultural sector to achieve a higher performance, especially in high-value agricultural crops.”

Some experts even advise Ethiopia, a poor country struggling unnecessarily with backward agriculture systems, needs to open its strict laws and embrace genetically modified organism in order to achieve high productivity in a short period of time and sufficiently address food security. More importantly for many, however, is the building of policy implementation capacity of both federal and regional governments, according to experts. This is particularly true since the honeymoon with foreign donors is over.

More countries are falling into the emergency lists of the United Nations due to the deteriorating climate that is precipitated by the heavy industrialization of western countries, while aid to developing countries is likely to fall. In January 2020, the UN-WFP called for the international donors to save 45 million people in grave food insecurity in 16 countries in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), mainly due to extended and repetitive droughts, widespread floods, and deadly storms.

“As we see in a number of countries (and currently in Australia), climate change will lead to an increasing number and frequency of shocks, be it an increased number of droughts and floods, or the increasing incidences of pests and disease. That will indeed be a big challenge for the agricultural sector and the agri-food system moving forward and the whole world needs to be prepared for this, not only Ethiopia,” Minten warns. EBR

9th Year • Mar.16 – Apr.15 2020 • No. 84

Ashenafi Endale


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