We are living in a time of multiple, mutually reinforcing crises. Having just emerged from a global pandemic, the world now faces the many significant ripple effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As a result, we are on the brink of a global food supply crisis.
Across Africa and beyond, this crisis threatens a human catastrophe that could push hundreds of millions into poverty and malnutrition, reversing decades of life-saving progress. The UN is rightly sounding the alarm: its Secretary General recently stated that the war is "threatening to unleash an unprecedented wave of hunger and destitution, leaving social and economic chaos in its wake”. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) notes that nearly 50 countries rely on either Russia or Ukraine, or both, for more than a third of their wheat imports. That figure rises to 50% for 26 countries. Every second or third piece of bread in Africa and the Middle East is produced using Ukrainian wheat.
The food crisis is also having an impact on all of us in Europe. In May 2022, annual food price inflation stood at 7.5% putting a real squeeze on lower income households. Also, although the EU thankfully does not suffer from shortage of food, the war is driving up the price of commodities that support our food production: fuel, feed ingredients and fertiliser. Many of these commodities historically comes in from Ukraine and Russia. Additionally, like other nations, we will not be immune to the growing number of trade restrictive measures that countries are taking to ensure increased food availability and self-sufficiency, further disrupting supply chains, just as we experienced during the pandemic regarding PPEs and vaccines.
The global food crisis is a toxic cocktail not only for human progress, but also political and social stability, including in Europe’s neighbourhood. In response, the European Commission has reportedly prepared an initial aid package of €600 million for African, Caribbean and Pacific countries.
The war has put the spotlight on the vulnerabilities and inequalities of the world’s food systems. But even before the war, extreme weather linked to climate change was already threatening food supplies, particularly in Africa. Climate change remains the wider and more far reaching long-term threat to global food production.
Only a joined-up, sustainable and future-proofed response can address the immediate and long-term threats to food supply and security. Importantly, such a comprehensive response should also leverage available digital technologies.
Digitalisation in agriculture brings many benefits: it can boost the resilience of farming systems, help farmers work more effectively, improve yields and connect with their customers in new ways, while growing sustainably with better resilience in the face of market and supply chain disruptions.
For example, applying digital technology to agriculture can deliver the insight needed to better optimise arable land utilisation and farm production. We have seen tremendous progress with the cloud-based platform MyFarmWeb that serves 8,000 farmers in the United States, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. This platform collects farm data to support decision-making for better soil and crop health, more effective water use, and more precise fertiliser and pesticide application. This helps improve farm productivity and makes farming practices more efficient, and as a result can reduce greenhouse gases.
Digitialisation of agriculture is equally pressing – and promising - in Africa. Our recent report, ‘Towards a Connected Climate’, looks at ways to apply digital technologies to break the cycle of food insecurity and subsistence farming in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, M-Kulima is an online marketplace developed by a farmer for farmers in Kenya. Sellers list their produce and can connect directly with buyers without any need for an intermediary, improving not least smallholder farmers’ incomes. The app also provides weather forecasts, helping farmers to better plan their growing seasons.
Through this inclusive access to digital technology, African farmers – too many of whom are still living in absolute poverty - can farm more effectively and improve yields on existing land. In turn, this could also help Africa overcome its dependence on food imports, combat malnutrition and reduce poverty.
However, in both continents, there remain significant – though not insurmountable – barriers to this digitally-enabled agricultural sector. At the EU level, digital solutions need to be fully integrated into agriculture policies - from Farm to Fork and the Common Agricultural Policy, to the Africa-EU Partnership. We must also prioritise digital investments in rural areas where 15% of the EU’s population resides but where only 40% of people today have access to a fast broadband connection.
Across Africa, there is a clear need for the development of digital agricultural strategies, coupled with regulatory reform that incentivises long-term investment and the acceleration of relevant digital skills. The foundation for all of this is more universal access to modern connectivity and more affordable access to smartphones, ensuring that digital tools are put directly in the hands of the African farmers that need them.
The short and long term prospects for global food supply look daunting. The unfolding, overlapping crises mean that the majority of the world’s population face anything from rising food costs to outright starvation.
Our response must be immediate and far-reaching but also innovative - and digital technology should be leveraged in our joint efforts to improve food security for all.
Joakim Reiter, Chief External and Corporate Affairs Officer, Vodafone Group