Famine Is a Feminist Issue

In 2013 the United Nations Population Division revised its population projections to show that population could grow even faster than previously anticipated, especially in Africa. Planning ahead for feeding a hot, hungry, teeming planet is both a numbers game and social venture. Calories, climate change, and acres of land are some of the factors on one side of the equation. The 7 billion people in the world, projected to grow to 9.6 billion by 2050, are on the other.

Technically, farmers today grow enough food to feed everyone. But nearly 1 billion people on the planet periodically go without eating, in most cases because the food is too expensive or not available in the right places. That number could get a lot worse.

The food problem isn’t linear. To prevent hunger, farmers would have to double food production by 2050 even though the population isn’t doubling. Income growth is driving half of the increase in the world’s predicted food consumption. As more people in the developing world get wealthier, they adopt diets rich in meat and dairy. And it takes 13 pounds of grain to make a pound of beef.

Can’t we just grow more food? That will be tough. Half of the world’s vegetated land is already devoted to agriculture. Clearing more land, especially tropical forests, would be an environmental disaster.

Crop yields are not improving fast enough. To keep up with projected food demands, farmers will need to produce 2.4 percent more each year. Even with the spread of modern farming methods, yield gains globally are now just 0.9 to 1.6 percent per year.

Production could improve a little bit through more efficient use of current land and improvements in soil health, irrigation, and seed selection. But no quick and easy solutions will meet the projected demands, says Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s crop systems and global change program.

“It’s a mess!” says Ziska, who co-authored a chapter on food security and food production systems in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “In the past, by adding energy in the form of fertilizer, and by adding water, we were able to achieve yield gains,” he says. Fertilizer is not only expensive, it’s also petroleum-based and a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. We also can’t irrigate every field. Lack of access to water in many areas makes it impossible, climate change will worsen droughts, and in some places there isn’t enough energy to fuel the pump. And we’re just starting to see the  problems climate change will have on weed growth, pests, and crops’ heat stress.

Improvements can be made in some of the least productive agricultural areas that are expected to have an explosion in population, especially sub-Saharan Africa. But crop scientists alone can’t solve the problem. “This area is in trouble,” Ziska says. “We’ve been screaming about hunger in sub-Saharan Africa for years, not that it has done any good.”

Every food expert I spoke with sounded, frankly, a little panicked. “The problem in crafting a sustainable food future is that it’s bigger than people think,” says Timothy Searchinger of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and the World Resources Institute. “Population growth rates are higher and higher. It’s harder to keep up with yield growth than we previously thought. The impact of greenhouse gas emissions on agriculture is bigger than people think.”

Researchers working at the food and population nexus are most concerned about sub-Saharan Africa. Half of the world’s predicted growth in food consumption comes from population growth, and that’s where the population is growing most quickly. “So the question is, what can you do about it?” Searchinger says. “One thing you can do is go around killing people. But that’s not going to happen! So we are going to have to find ways to get population to replacement levels.”

That’s why empowering women is now one of the main solutions for feeding the world. Globally, most countries have achieved a birth rate at replacement levels, about two children per woman. But in sub-Saharan Africa, the fertility rate is 5.6 children per woman, largely because girls are not aware of reproductive choices and drop out of school at a young age and have kids. Fertility rates are highest in countries where women don’t have access to birth control or maternal and child health care. Babies often die before they turn 5 years old, and mothers overcompensate in family planning in hopes that at least a few kids will survive to adulthood. Unless the status of women changes in sub-Saharan Africa, we’re going to have a lot more than 1 billion hungry by midcentury.

When women have access to education and are aware of family planning, birth rates decline. Author Gordon Conway explains the connections best in One Billion Hungry. He links equal rights for women to improvements in food production and consumption and future progress on food security. Of farmers worldwide, 43 percent are women. Because they are mothers, educators, and innovators, Conway argues, protecting women from discrimination and exploitation, and helping them to be more productive, will prevent widespread famine.

If women are empowered to make their own choices, it means a girl stays in school longer. She has children later in life. She has access to reproductive health and family planning services when she needs them. And she can be confident that her baby will grow to a healthy adult. Which leads to population growth at replacement rates and improved food security.

In Mali, women with secondary education or higher have an average of three children; those who don’t go to school have an average of seven. And when a child is born to a mother who can read, it is 50 percent more likely to survive to its fifth birthday than a child born to an illiterate woman.

People in sub-Saharan Africa are the world’s hungriest. A quarter of them are undernourished. They have the world’s worst crop yields. They consume 9 percent of the world’s calories yet are 13 percent of the world’s population. But the population growth in the region, along with predictions that people will eat more because they’re now underfed, means sub-Saharan Africa will account for 37 percent of all additional calories required by midcentury.

“If you take what the population experts know and you think about what that means for food security and land use,” Searchinger says, “the solution to empower women and reduce child mortality stares you in the face and makes complete sense.”

Growing more crops per acre remains elusive. We’re not going to feed 2.6 billion more mouths by just using better seeds or watering a little more land. Reducing meat consumption and food waste and improving efficiency will help. But the empowerment of women can keep sub-Saharan Africa from starving.

This story originally appeared in Slate Magazine