The Next Breadbasket?

How Africa could save the world—and itself
More
Click the image above to view the whole map

It’s been 41 years since Paul Ehrlich predicted imminent mass starvation, in his 1968 jeremiad, The Population Bomb. In the years that followed, a green revolution drove crop production rapidly upward, while population growth slowed dramatically; Ehrlich’s bomb, rather conspicuously, failed to go off.

Nonetheless, we’re still multiplying—global population is on track to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, up from 6.8 billion today. And the green revolution seems to have run its course: rice yields, for instance, are growing at only 1 percent a year, down from 2.3 percent in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. For the past several years, grain production has not kept up with demand; if we are to put enough food on the table in the coming decades, something big will need to change.

Much of the world’s arable land is being farmed already, so the lion’s share of the increase will need to come through higher yields. In many places, yields can increase—if prices rise high enough to make investment in more-intensive agriculture worthwhile. Still, much of the developed world is approaching the ceiling of what is cheaply possible. Sub-Saharan Africa, despite its long history of food insecurity, is one place where yields could increase dramatically; agricultural basics such as good seed and fertilizer would go far in a region that the green revolution bypassed. “We could increase yields in sub-Saharan Africa threefold tomorrow with off-the-shelf technology,” says Kenneth Cassman, a well-regarded agronomist who researches potential yields. The problem is the continent’s long history of corruption, poor infrastructure, and lack of market access.

Agricultural investment in Africa—and in a few other high-potential places such as Ukraine and Russia—may be the world’s best bet for keeping food plentiful and cheap. This investment could bring other benefits too; the World Bank estimates that agricultural development is twice as effective at reducing poverty as other sources of growth. In Asia, as cereal yields rose, poverty rates plummeted. Investment in Africa’s agriculture—by donors, farmers, and African governments—may allow the continent to feed the world and save itself.

Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne is a writer based in Boston.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In