Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: David M. Kaplan

Africa, Food, and Agriculture

  • Trish GlazebrookEmail author
  • Anthony Kola-Olusanya
Living reference work entry

Later version available View entry history

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6167-4_486-1


Food Security Food Insecurity Environmental Justice Transboundary Water Climate Justice 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


African food security depends largely on agriculture. Agriculture supports the livelihoods of 80 % of the population and employs approximately 60 % of the economically active population, including some 70 % of the poorest people on the planet. The continent has the largest agricultural area per person in the developing world and contains about 11 % of both the world’s arable land and the world’s population (Bank 2008). Plantation and corporate farming exist, but smallholder, family-owned subsistence agriculture, using simple implements like hoes and cutlasses, is the dominant system, with some commercial activity in local trading. Subsistence farming is “a livelihood strategy where the main output is consumed directly, where there are few if any purchased inputs and where only a minor proportion of output is marketed.”

Agricultural inputs commonly include water through irrigation and fertilizers to increase yield. Only 3.7 % of Africa is irrigated, however, and fertilizer consumption is the lowest globally at only 1 % of the world’s fertilizers. Average use in developing countries is 109 kilograms per hectare of arable land (kg/ha), but in Africa the average is only 12.6 kg/ha. Many farmers fertilize only through collection of animal dung (Glazebrook 2011). Though 70 % of the world’s farmers are women (Women for Women International), in parts of Africa, women contribute 80 % of food production. African farmers are thus predominantly women smallholders using methods that are neither capital nor technology intensive to grow subsistence crops.

A main characteristic of subsistence use for farming land is “the centrality of the social” in that food production activities are grounded in social relations within households (particularly gender relations) and between households that affect the negotiation of production decisions, knowledge management, and marketing. For example, families commonly take decisions together concerning crop selection and when to plant and harvest.

Agriculture and food production are part of everyday lived experience for many Africans in contrast to life in the “fast food nations” of the global North where typically less than 20 % of the population are rural dwellers and most people are widely separated from their food source in terms of both production and processing. Rarely do more than 50 % of African populations live in cities. Half of the countries with greater than 80 % rural dwelling are in Africa, with Burundi topping the global chart at 89 %. Issues in food ethics like locavorism ; the slow food movement, organic production, processing, and storage; low meat intake; and family or communal gathering for meals are not active choices so much as common practices arising from the field-to-table production-preparation-consumption patterns of subsistence economies. Food traditions are deeply embedded in cultural practice, ethnicity, and ethnic identity , such that food is at the heart of community ethos.

African issues in food and agricultural ethics are thus different from those in the global North. Issues in agricultural ethics include labor, gender, environmental justice, and climate justice. Since agriculture is the main food source, issues in agricultural ethics and food ethics are inherently linked. The most pressing issues are increasing food insecurity and the current food crisis that is quickly getting worse.

Research into African agricultural and food ethics is limited and mostly confined to debates over genetically modified crops, e.g., the response to MacDonald (2006) in Powers (2006). Concerning agricultural ethics, van Niekerk (2010) also addresses the ethics of genetically modified crops, but also animals, in assessing agricultural biotechnology, and he delves further into issues of HIV/AIDS, land reform, biodiversity conservation, medicinal plants, animal rights and welfare, and agricultural science. Yet subsistence agriculture, the most common form of agricultural practice in Africa that affects the most people and presses for analysis from environmental, distributive, intergenerational, gender, climate, and recognition justice, does not appear as a thematic entry or an entry in the index. Van Niekerk’s work warrants reading as an account of the ethics of commercial agriculture in Africa. This entry serves as a complement to his work that prioritizes instead subsistence agriculture in order to indicate the growing humanitarian food crisis in Africa.

Agricultural Ethics

Agricultural Labor

Sub-Saharan African agriculture can be subsistence or commercial. In subsistence farming, the farm provides the family’s principal source of income and typically involves some small-scale selling in local markets, mostly to buy schoolbooks or uniforms and sometimes cloth for making clothes or pharmaceuticals where traditional medicine has failed. Subsistence farming in Africa depends on family labor (Cornish 1998). Labor is an issue when children are kept out of school sporadically to assist in subsistence farming. Educational impacts can be long term and preclude completion and affect literacy rates. Given that most farmers are women, the practice of taking daughters out of school to work in the fields during planting and harvest, especially of a parent has fallen ill, exacerbates gender inequities and reinforces the well-documented “gender gap.” This use of young female labor is hard to counter because the family’s food security and whatever limited income they can generate depends on a successful crop. One resolution, practiced, for example, at the Center for Sustainable Development Initiatives in Bolgatanga, Ghana, is to provide the family with money to hire labor in place of the daughter so she can complete the school year.

In commercial production, cash crops are intended for the market. Fertilizers and pesticides are commonly used to increase yield, so ethical issues include health impacts for laborers. Use of mechanized equipment introduces safety issues. These issues are especially important in contexts of weak or nonexistent government regulation or of corruption. Female workers in particular can be exposed to unwanted sexual advances. Minimum wage standards are nonexistent or inadequate, so labor can easily be exploited.

In large-scale, plantation-style agriculture, child labor is a pressing ethical issue. Indentured labor of children reproduces slavery conditions. Nutrition is an expense and thus usually inadequate; there is no education, minimal concern for health, and lack of protection from abuse. In Ghana’s cocoa industry, for example, ten of thousands of children are forced into hard labor in hazardous condition with no pay.

African Gender Issues in Agriculture

Throughout Africa, women continue to face social inequalities, complete less formal education than men, and have lower literacy rates. They often have a longer workday than male counterparts, yet their agricultural labor is largely overlooked by policy makers because traditional economic indices cannot account for nonmarketed yields. Even more recent measures such as the Genuine Progress Index fail to account for the crucial contribution women make to national food baskets, without which governments in Africa could not function (Glazebrook 2011). Women farmers also face limited access to credit, machinery, labor, fertilizer and agricultural extension services, and exclusion from agroforestry. Weak land tenure rights are especially a problem. Africa’s declines in agricultural production have been attributed in large part to large-scale land acquisitions that result in local people losing access to the resources on which they depend for their food security and livelihoods (Cotula et al. 2009). If women depend on access to land over which they have no claim of ownership, family food security can be threatened at any time. Agricultural ethics thus intersect with gender on distributive justice issues of workload parity and resource allocation and recognition justice issues concerning women’s role as food providers and nontraditional economic agents.

Environmental Justice

Environmental injustice in Africa is rampant in the agricultural sector where most farmers have few resources or political and social tools and empowerment to respond. Land grabbing displaces smallholders and subsistence farmers from traditional growing areas, to permit instead large-scale, mechanized, capital-intensive, monoculture production of cash crops for export or of crops to be processed into biofuels . These production approaches not only leave local farmers landless; they also deplete local water resources and can contaminate nearby land and water with runoff chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms that outcompete local crops. Moreover, well-intentioned development projects that never come to fruition can deny appropriated land to locals while lying frustratingly empty.

Pollution also compromises environmental justice. Resource extraction industries, e.g., mining and oil development, cause environmental damage to neighboring land by dumping mining tailings and leaving oil spills unattended to. Profits accrue to the polluters, while locals’ livelihood losses often go uncompensated. In Nigeria, 60 years of resistance to oil development and its impacts on agricultural livelihoods, as well as other negative impacts, resulted in the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9 for their leadership in protesting Shell’s activities in the Niger Delta but has made little difference to environmental degradation in affected areas.

Control of water can also be a source of environmental injustice. In 2007, when floods were wreaking havoc in Burkina Faso, the dams were opened to relieve local impacts. The ensuing swell exacerbated flooding in Ghana, Burkina Faso’s downstream neighbor, where more than 50 died, over 300,000 were displaced, and many suffered the loss of their entire annual crop. The majority of farmers impacted were women supporting various dependents in extended families separated by urban migration and devastated by AIDS deaths; that is, the most vulnerable community members with the least resources to bounce back were strongly affected.

Elsewhere, transboundary water issues are drivers of war , conflict, and confrontation, e.g., between Egypt and Ethiopia, as upstream dam development reduces flows downstream across the border. Subsistence farmers who depend solely on rains experience less impact on their production from transboundary water control than corporate farmers whose water use in agriculture includes irrigation, though their lives may be affected in other ways, e.g., water availability for daily family needs.

Climate Justice

The factor most likely to impact agricultural production in Africa is global climate change, which intersects with the issues detailed above and is predicted to exacerbate and accelerate all negative influences on agriculture. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 4th Assessment Report (2007), Africa is “a continent already under pressure from climate stresses and highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.” These impacts include longer, hotter dry periods, decreased rainfall, unpredictable rainfall patterns, increased temperature, desertification, loss of coastal land to sea-level rise, and severe weather events like heat waves, drought, and floods. Insidious changes in the seasons, i.e., the longer, hotter dry periods, shorter growing seasons, and unpredictable rainfall patterns caused by the consequences to climate of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, are bewildering farmers by making it harder to know when best to sow, cultivate, and harvest (Jennings and Magrath 2009). Impacts if changing weather patterns on water resources are especially threatening to agriculture. A third of Africans already living in drought-prone areas and 220 million are exposed to drought every year, while 250 million are predicted to experience water stress. Water stress and drought lead to decreased yield that has been directly correlated to the global temperature increases of climate change. Rice, for example, undergoes 10 % decline for each 1 °C rise; global estimates of temperature increase caused by current production levels of greenhouse gases estimate increases as high as 5 °C by 2050.

Women and children are extremely vulnerable to the incremental impacts of climate change on food and agriculture, though they have the least amount of political, economic, and social resources to recover (Peacock et al. 1997; Morrow 1999; Bang 2008). Because they are politically and economically marginalized, women lack access to government or other aid in the form of loans and grants. Nor can women simply move elsewhere when growing conditions deteriorate if they do not have the resources to do so, and they may be constrained by other barriers. Women head 30 % of households in Ghana, for example (Lloyd and Gage-Brandon 1993), but a woman heading a Fra Fra family in a small village in Northern Ghana may speak only Fra Fra, so language is a huge barrier to relocation.

Women also are the primary medical caregivers in the family, so diseases like malaria or other water-vector, insect-carried sicknesses that thrive in standing water left behind by floods increase women’s workload while decreasing the capacity of other family members to contribute labor to the family’s agricultural projects, as well as increasing the probability that the woman will herself suffer health impacts of climate change. Children whose food security is threatened by climate change can suffer nutritional deficiencies that have developmental as well as lifelong health impacts that impair brain, bone, and organ function. Climate change accordingly has differential impacts across groups with varying vulnerability. Climate justice issues in agricultural and food ethics intersect with issues of gender and children’s right to an equitable chance for survival and long-term health.

Agricultural production in Africa in consequence of climate change is indeed expected to experience catastrophic declines in grain number, size, and quality of 20–30 % by 2080, with declines as high as 50 % in Sudan and Senegal (Cline 2007). 60 % of sub-Saharan Africans depend for survival on livestock that provide dung for fertilizer, occasional protein in the diet, and other resources for various uses. Climate change impacts will bring less forage and feed crops and less water for animals. African agricultural communities will thus suffer severe damage from climate change that affects their livestock and their crop.

At the same time, African production of the greenhouse gases causing global climate change is negligible in comparison with heavy emissions from industrialized countries where inhabitants also live carbon-intensive lifestyles.

Principles of distributive justice are thus doubly breached when those making the least contribution to climate change reap few of the benefits but bear the costs disproportionately heavily. Agricultural impacts of climate change in Africa accordingly breach principles of climate justice. Impacts are and will continue to be heavy in the agricultural and food sector where there are economic consequences for corporate agriculture but also food security consequences that increase human suffering. Climate change impacts are inescapable for many Africans and constitute a massive humanitarian crisis that has already begun and continues to grow through both extreme weather events and the less dramatic but more insidious variability and unpredictability of climate patterns that were previously relatively stable.

Food Security

According to the United Nations, of 36 countries worldwide currently facing food insecurity, 21 are African. The number of undernourished in sub-Saharan Africa rose from 169 million in 1990–1992 to 212 million in 2003–2005 (Biavaschi 2008). Over this period, the proportion of the world’s hungry living in Africa rose from 1/5 to 1/4 (FAO 2008). The UN Food and Agriculture Organization also identified four Africa countries (Lesotho, Somalia, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe) as in acute food crisis, i.e., “facing an exceptional shortfall in aggregate food production/supplies as result of crop failure, natural disasters interruption of imports, disruption of distribution, excessive post-harvest losses or other supply bottlenecks.” A further four (Eritrea, Liberia, Mauritania, and Sierra Leone) were experiencing widespread lack of access to food, i.e., “a majority of the population is considered to be unable to procure food from local markets, due to very low incomes, exceptionally high food prices or the inability to circulate within the country.” Thirteen (Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda) had “severe localized food insecurity due to the influx of refugees, a concentration of internally displaced persons or areas with combinations of crop failure and deep poverty.” And Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Zimbabwe also had unfavorable prospects for that growing season, i.e., “a shortfall in production of current crops as a result of a reduction of the area planted and/or adverse weather conditions, plant pests, diseases and other calamities.”

The following year, 2009, the United Nations identified 235 million sub-Saharan Africans as “chronically hungry” (Kabasa and Sage 2009). By 2050, Africa is predicted to experience a 10–20 % increase in the number of people at risk of hunger, a 21 % increase in the number of children at risk of hunger, and a 26 % increase in malnourished children. These percentages mean that 24 million more children are expected to be at risk of hunger in 2050 than in 2012 and 10 million more are expected to be malnourished. These predictions are especially worrisome concerning children, given long-term health consequences of poor nutrition discussed above as issues in climate justice and the breach in intergenerational justice malnutrition entails. By 2080, the anticipation is that 75 % of everyone at risk of hunger globally will reside in Africa. In 2012, 24 % of the world’s undernourished (a classification less severe than “malnourished”) were in Africa, but by 2080, 40–50 % will be.

Oniang’o (2009) traced food insecurity and hunger in Africa to its beginning in the mid-1980s, when it was recognized as a cyclical issue that could be predicted as coming approximately every 5 years, particularly in East Africa, where some arid and semiarid areas can go for as long as 4 years without a drop of rain. Although the concept of global climate change is fairly recent, Oniang’o’s timeline is consistent with current scientific analyses from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that released its most recent Assessment Report in November of 2013, so cyclical variability may have deeper roots in larger, noncyclical global patterns. Whether cyclical or global, the changing African climate is clearly a significant factor in food insecurity.

Lack of adequate nutrition has many impacts on human well-being. Health, mortality, and survival consequences are worst for the more vulnerable, i.e., the young and the old; women subject to the bodily demands and stresses of pregnancy, breast-feeding, menstruation, and menopause; and the sick, who in Africa commonly battle malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS, or a combination. Historically, food insecurity and hunger have gone hand in hand with conflict, to the extent that it is difficult to determine the cause-effect relationship of the two with any degree of certainty.

Food insecurity is a consequence of exceeding carrying capacity, which is a relation between population size and agricultural output. When populations increase, more food is needed to support the increased population, but land on which to grow food is a finite resource. Africa is experiencing both population increase and decrease in agricultural yield. The 2005 population in Africa of 0.9 billion people is predicted by the UN Development Programme to experience 81 % growth by 2035 and to have more than doubled in 2050 by reaching nearly two billion.

Africa is the only region of the world where per capita food production has been declining for the past three decades. By 2003, cereal yields, for example, were only a quarter of the global average (Jones and Thornton 2003). Models anticipate that countries in Africa are likely to experience catastrophic declines in yield of 20–30 % by 2080, rising as high as 50 % in Sudan and Senegal (Cline 2007). This crisis in agriculture means a decrease in food accessibility that will be especially harmful for groups like women and children that are vulnerable because of pregnancy and childcare in the case of women and developmental impacts of poor nutrition in the case of children but also because of their marginalization and economic invisibility.

Observed declines in agricultural yield are the result of multilayered problems including climate issues of temperature, rainfall and weather events, decline in soil fertility, increases in pests and diseases, changes and delays in cropping practices, decline and poor adoption of external production inputs and productivity-enhancing measures, and limited individual property rights – all of which are major impediments against investment in African agriculture (Amponsah 2009).

The International Institute for Tropical Agriculture also points to lack of microcredit to support small-scale farmers, minimal value addition in processing crops to increase their market value, poor storage facilities, poor food preservation techniques, poor pricing policies, the high poverty level of farmers, and inconsistent agricultural policies (IITA 2007). Holt-Giménez (2008 cited in Vivas 2010) argues that economic “development” policies driven by the global North that began in the 1960s, i.e., the Green Revolution projects, structural adjustment programs, regional free trade treaties, the World Trade Organization, and agricultural subsidies in developed countries, have all contributed to the destruction of food systems in Africa (Vivas 2010).

Beyond short-term causative elements, Vivas (2010) argues further that underlying reasons explaining the current deep food crisis include neoliberal policies such as trade liberalization, payment of foreign debt, 30 years of indiscriminate privatization of public services and goods, and the logic of capital at work in agriculture and food models. All these factors are exacerbated by climate change, which is also the consequence of uncontrolled environmental degradation from the industrialized countries of the North.

Food insecurity in Africa thus has multiple drivers: some are environmental, but others are rooted in postcolonial, global issues that are political and economic. The justice and ethical issues can accordingly not be assessed without analysis from political economy and political ecology that examine equity, parity, and global North–south relations. Ironically, food security needs of populations in the developed countries of the global North have also created a situation where commercial crops on African farms, especially large-scale, mechanized production systems, now grow food intended for dinner tables and restaurants in the global North, while local workers and neighboring communities in Africa are starving.

An extreme version of this gross breach of global ethics is documented in Director Hubert Sauper’s film Darwin’s Nightmare that shows how livelihood loss from displacement of traditional fish stocks by introduced, invasive pickerel in Lake Victoria has forced starving locals into exploitative employment by the corporate fishing industry to process catches for consumption in Europe. Corporate farms that displace locals, often women, from lands that have historically been used to grow subsistence crops are scattered across Africa. For example, cassava flakes exported to China are derived from cassava, a starch source widely consumed across Africa. Africans thus experience increasing food crisis as crops diminish, while a staple is exported elsewhere. The high incidence of poverty in Africa means, however, that Africans themselves are in large part unable to afford to buy food when their crops fail to last to the next harvest.

In response to food insecurity, Africans have at the community level developed various adaptation strategies. A recommended strategy is alternative income generation (Glazebrook 2011), but this often requires capital investment, education in business management, marketing skills, and other knowledge and resources to which the most vulnerable, i.e., marginally literate women subsistence farmers who live in poverty greater than what the World Bank calls “abject,” have no access. An on-the-ground strategy is crop selection, in which farmers shift from millet, for example, to rice that is less dependent on steady rains and more successful in variable conditions. Rice is, however, more labor intensive and so difficult for the most vulnerable who are less capable of meeting the physical demands. Moreover, rice is significantly less nutritional than millet that is high in minerals, protein, and calcium and thus a far superior food source than rice for pregnant and lactating women and growing children.

Food and poverty are deeply entangled because poverty is a substantial factor in food insecurity that affects Africans’ ability to remediate environmental damage, increase productivity by extending outputs, or purchase food to compensate for inadequate yield. Yet in Africa, 1 % increase in crop yield reduces the number of poor by 0.72 %, i.e., by 200 million people. To increase food security, there is need for an environmentally and socially responsive agricultural system, based on smallholders’ needs. It is critical to close the inequality gap and give poor people (especially women) a chance to better care for themselves, their families, and their communities.


Food and agriculture are at the heart of every culture, and the celebration of food and agriculture is common across African countries, religions, and cultures due to its importance in historical and intergenerational continuity (Shah 2010) and its role in ethnicity and ethnic identity . Food consumption practices in developed countries have become distanced from agricultural sources and alienated by large-scale industrial food production and processing, resulting in intentional practice in organic, local, and slow food movements. In Africa, food production is a significant livelihood strategy; most agriculture is subsistence, largely practiced by women who manage the process from planting to harvest with minimal inputs and do their own processing from field to table. Thus, organic farming, locavorism , and slow food consumption belong to the subsistence practice itself and do not need to be artificially introduced.

Culturally rich and distinctive food traditions in Africa have been undermined by postcolonial, neoliberal global politics and economics that have disrupted Africa’s resource base and introduced large-scale, industrialized, monoculture-favoring, capital- and technology-intensive corporate agricultural models. Perhaps well-intentioned but nonetheless ill-conceived development programs have thus lead to poorly managed agricultural production that has damaged local environments. Global climate change increasingly exacerbates environmental damage, and Africa at present is in a state of agricultural and food crisis that is unlikely to improve and extremely likely rather to erupt in the next 35 years into humanitarian emergency that is globally unprecedented in scale and severity.

Most of Africa’s farmers are women rendered vulnerable to food insecurity and agricultural crisis by lack of education and access to resources, economic invisibility, weak land tenure rights, and increasingly difficult growing conditions in fragile ecosystems. Children are also especially vulnerable to health impacts when nutritional needs are not met.

African issues in agricultural ethics involve labor, including child labor; gender issues, including social inequalities, weak land tenure, and limited access to resources; environmental justice issues including distributive, recognition, and intergenerational justice; and climate justice as Africa suffers disproportionate impacts from climate change while generating comparatively small amounts of the greenhouse gases that are causing it. Concerning food ethics, increasing population size in African countries coupled with decreasing agricultural yields has already begun to place African countries on a spectrum ranging from food insecurity to full-blown crisis.

Oxfam (2011), “Growing a Better Future,” points to the buckling nature of the global food system from a combination of factors including climate change, ecological degradation, population growth, rising energy prices, rising demand for meat and dairy products, and competition for land from biofuels , industry, and urbanization. Each of these factors exacerbates the pressure on distribution systems. The report warns that present systems of production and distribution will continue to create millions of hungry people unless there is a redistribution of power from a handful of multinationals to the billions of people who actually produce and consume the world’s food (Bailey 2011). Evidence clearly indicates that Africa is the first continent to exhibit this buckling of global food systems. Sub-Saharan Africa is already and will continue overwhelmingly also to suffer the loss of its historically rich, plentiful agricultural base from environmental degradation, climate change impacts, and poorly conceived development approaches and programs. The most pressing issue in ethical assessments of African food and agriculture is mass starvation.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy & Religion StudiesUniversity of North TexasDentonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Geography and Resource Studies, College of Management and Social SciencesOsun State UniversityOkukuNigeria