Can trade help Africa achieve nutrition security in 2050?

Ensuring people have the right amounts and the right kinds of food to support healthy lifestyles is a growing challenge across Africa. Many countries have made progress towards reducing the prevalence of undernourishment – having insufficient energy to support activity levels – but these improvements have slowed in recent years. In AFRICAP countries, including Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia, the trend has started to reverse.

Although there are enough calories available to achieve food security, the uneven access to foods means that many still go hungry, whilst for others, obesogenic diseases are becoming more of a concern. A more pervasive challenge, however, is ensuring that people have nutrition security – they are not just eating enough food, but the foods they consume contain all the nutrients needed to support their health. For most AFRICAP countries, the availability of many important micronutrients in the national food supply currently falls short of requirements.

Looking ahead to 2050, the twin challenges of climate and population changes are going to make nutrition security even harder to achieve. Making agriculture ‘climate smart’ to build resilience to the uncertainties of acute weather shocks, to adapt to chronic climatic changes, and to reduce agriculture’s own environmental pressures is a core focus of AFRICAP. Projected population changes are more knowable but could nonetheless have a significant impact on nutrition security. In Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia, the population is expected to increase two-to-threefold between 2000 and 2050.

As part of AFRICAP’s integrated Future Estimator for Emissions and Diets (iFEED) work, we’ve been considering possible nutrition outcomes under a range of plausible futures.

Our results suggest that, in most cases, meeting future nutritional needs with national agricultural production alone will be unattainable, especially for key micro-nutrients such as iron and calcium. And given that agricultural exports are often seen as an important driver of economic growth, food trade will be crucial in determining future nutrition security – facilitating both the nutrient imports and earnings from exports.

Alongside changes to climate, population, and national agricultural policies and practices, we considered a range of trade futures including continuation of business-as-usual imports and exports, and changes to the status quo based on insights from in-country experts. We also looked at the types and quantities of foods that would need to be imported, and what agricultural surpluses would be available to export, if trade patterns were optimised to achieve nutrition security whilst making the minimal possible changes to current dietary preferences.

The results of this last question are intriguing. In some cases the volumes of produce being imported and exported would not necessarily change dramatically compared with business-as-usual expectations, but changes to the types of foods being traded would need to be more significant. Beyond suggesting how trade may need to evolve to support healthy diets, the results also point to how domestic agriculture could potentially be reconfigured if nutrition and agricultural policies were more closely aligned. In all cases, whilst current dietary staples such as maize and cassava would continue to play an important part in future food supply, reliance on them would be reduced relative to other foods and diets in general would become much more diversified.

Of course, much remains unknown about the future developments of food systems and trade throughout the region. How might climate shocks in global breadbasket regions affect the availability and affordability of food in AFRICAP countries? How might the nascent African Continental Free Trade Area affect intra-regional trade flows? To what extent will domestic production, trade, nutrition, health, climate and economic policies be aligned to treat the issues holistically?

Whilst we don’t necessarily have all the answers, the intent of putting trade and nutrition security relationships at the heart of the iFEED work is to encourage policymakers to increasingly ask these knotty questions about how agriculture, food systems, and nutrient outcomes interrelate. Alongside climate-smart, nutrient-dense national food production, trading relationships and security of international supply will become increasingly important in fulfilling nutritional requirements. It is important that the nature of these arrangements and the potential vulnerabilities inherent within them are better understood and managed. We hope that iFEED will increasingly serve as a resource to aid this understanding and to guide difficult and crucial decisions in the face of uncertainty.

Webinar on 29 July

Learn more about Richard King and Jennie Macdiarmid’s trade and nutrition research at Africa’s Future Food and Nutrition Security: Impacts Under Different Climate, Trade and Policy Scenarios, a free GCRF AFRICAP webinar on 29 July, 12:00 – 13:30 (BST).

About the Author

Richard King is a senior research fellow in Chatham House’s Energy, Environment, and Resources programme.

His work focuses on systemic shocks and the sustainability of, and climate risks to, food systems, agriculture, land-use, and soft commodity resource trade. For GCRF-AFRICAP, Richard works on Policy Design and Implementation as well as trade and nutrition scenarios for the Integrated Assessment Framework. Read more.