A landmark ‘Global Food Security’ report, published last week by a UK parliamentary committee, stated that Britain is “never more than a few days away from a significant food shortage”. As the study rightly noted, this is not just a UK problem but a genuinely global issue.
More than one billion people go hungry today and 2.3 million children die from malnutrition every year, mainly in developing countries. And with the world’s population forecast to rise to 9.3 billion by 2050 from 7.1 billion now, pressure on food supplies will only intensify in coming decades.
It is estimated that global good production will need to increase by 30 percent to 80 percent to meet the demands of this growing population. Global warming will only exacerbate the problem and measures to reduce food waste, while urgent, will be a drop in the ocean.
So how can we spur more production of global food supplies in an innovative, cost-effective way – and particularly in Africa, a continent with significant capacity for producing additional food?
One solution is to address Africa’s erratic weather, which is why the continent is producing much less food than it is capable of doing.
To do this, we at Delft University of Technology are pioneering a technological breakthrough solution in the shape of a cost-effective network of hydro-meteorological measuring stations that will provide better maps of water and weather in Africa.
The Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO), as the network is known, is genuinely “game-changing” because Africa’s existing meteorological observation network is very limited.
As a result, national governments and regional planners do not have the data to make good decisions regarding investment in water resources infrastructure. And the success of a number of measures aimed at adapting to climate change – such as micro-insurance for crops – hinges on the availability of local weather data.
This is a fundamental challenge if we are to optimise the continent's food growing potential in a sustainable way. It is unquestionably the case that harvest predictions and food production would benefit from a better understanding of water availability over space and time and an improved ability to predict shifting weather patterns.
This is crucial for local farmers, who will be able to access information through mobile phone text messages and radio and television. Micro-insurance, which is becoming increasingly popular in Africa, also depends on better forecasts to work efficiently.
The TAHMO project requires the installation of 20,000 measuring stations, each one costing just 500 dollars, at intervals of 30 kilometres. The new weather stations, based on the latest cost-effective technology, will measure all standard meteorological variables (rainfall, radiation, temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction).
They are robust (no moving parts) and are now being extensively field tested with pilot stations in Senegal, Ghana, South Africa and Kenya.
Funding permitting, our aim is to have 20,000 stations up and running by 2018, located at schools and integrated in local educational programmes. The data will be combined with models and satellite observations to obtain a much more complete insight into the distribution of water and energy stocks and fluxes in Africa.
The weather stations will also give local people access to climate data on their region that is relevant to their daily lives (including for the education of children); provide climate scientists with a large new amount of data (recording real-time data for them to incorporate in their models); and train a new generation on how to do weather measurements and the benefits of those measurements.
THINKING BEYOND AFRICA
As challenging as the project is, the potential prizes are increased global food supply, stronger economic growth for Africa and greater domestic stability, not just in Africa, but elsewhere too.
The scale of the global food crisis is difficult to comprehend, presenting a massive humanitarian challenge but also a security one. When food shortages occur, as in 2007-2008, the price spikes that often result can have a devastating impact, especially on those developing countries that rely heavily on food imports, including parts of South America, North Africa and the Middle East.
It is estimated that the 2007-8 spike in food prices drove 100 million into poverty. This helped encourage civil unrest in some 28 countries. And, going forward, the price of key staples, including wheat and rice, could double in the next 20 years, threatening disastrous consequences for the poor in particular.
Europe, North America and much of Asia-Pacific are already producing food at or near peak capacity, leaving South America and Africa as the two main continents that are capable of producing more food. In South America, issues surrounding rainforests and biodiversity limit the amount of land available for crops but in Africa, unpredictable weather is the primary culprit.
TAHMO has the potential to address this problem over the long-term, helping the continent boost its food production, reducing malnutrition and lifting millions of people out of poverty. The time is now to tackle the global food crisis and it is crucial we do not let this opportunity slip through our fingers.
Professor Nick van de Giesen is head of the TAHMO project and Van Kuffeler Chair of Water Resources Management at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands