Drier earth, more mouths to feed
On Tuesday, the world achieved an interesting milestone: Its population hit eight billion.
That’s a good thing or a bad thing, depending on where you sit. You might see this as the choking of the globe by poor, dirty, third-worlders swarming the earth spreading disease, soaking up natural resources and destroying the capacity of the planet to support life if you are an oligarch from the West.
If, on the hand, you are a poor, dirty third-worlder—broke, jobless and hopeless—making babies is, perhaps, the only bright spot in an otherwise blank existence. And as Sauti Sol opines in Nerea, when God gives a baby, He brings its plate too.
When I was a schoolboy in Siakago Boys High School, in Mbeere Sub-County, at tea break we used to buy something called in the local dialect a githii, the good old loaf. It used to be an unsliced block and the services of a githii divider would be sought and he would unerringly cut it into four quarters, with a 0.000mm tolerance of error, to prevent civil war.
So, in general terms, God needs to put two billion githii in those plates for breakfast every day. Feeding eight billion people, given the world’s inequalities and astoundingly idiotic governments in places, will be a little bit more challenging than Sauti Sol suggest.
In some places the food is there; it is just thrown away by homes, restaurants and food sellers. A 2021 United Nations Environment Programme report said that 17 per cent—that is 931 million tonnes—of all food that was given to consumers in 2019 was not eaten but thrown away.
As the authors observed, that is “23 million fully loaded 40-tonne trucks bumper-to-bumper, enough to circle the earth seven times”. This is food produced, sometimes processed or packed or both, transported and delivered to the consumer who doesn’t eat it but throws it into the bin.
In 2019, some 678 million people were affected by hunger. The world, by the way, is getting hungrier. But almost a billion tonnes of good food is thrown away as almost a billion people stare at starvation in a year. As more of the world becomes wealthier and more urbanised, the demand for food increases and less might be produced because there is less water and the soils are overworked.
In Kenya, we have serious disadvantages in food production, from a layman's point of view. First, our soils, worked by our ancestors to the point of death, are now dead and poisoned by chemicals. Their capacity to support increases in production will have to be rebuilt through treatment and care.
Kenya has a water crisis. The destruction of water sources, contamination and climate change means that we do not have enough, and we are losing what there is at an alarming rate.
The assumption that we can crank up food production with the current technology and resource levels is, in my opinion, more wishful thinking than clever strategy. I believe the solution lies at the household level, not with the government. Many a time, when the government proposes a solution, the idea is not to help us; it is to help some ogres to make billions in kickbacks and outright theft.
When we were growing up, it was an article of faith that every family grew its own food and had a little more to sell to those who did not have it. There were nabobs of food at the market centres that opened their shops to buy the excess during the harvest. They would later open their doors to sell to those jokers who did not store enough to carry them to the next harvest.
Unlike Ukraine or Tanzania, which have huge tracts of previously collectivised land, we have small, plate-sized pieces. My father did not get much in the way of ancestral land because he was “palling around with terrorists”, the Mau Mau, as Sarah Palin memorably phrased it.
A third of his land is my mother’s and I have, therefore, inherited a chunk good enough to grow two yams, five cabbages and fit one thin cow—sideways. We have been forced to migrate to drier, harsher, hotter lands which require completely different skills to work productively.
These lands are fantastically generous but harsh. Their seasons are a micro-second: All the rain falls in a few days, and the crops grow as you watch and are eaten by pests in hours.
Workers report hearing noises like ropes being dragged on the ground; it is actually massive snakes hunting, scorpions abound in houses, and most boreholes come up dry, produce little water or hit saline and poisonous aquifers.
However, this is where the solution lies. Farming communities which migrated from the dry lands to the fertile, wetlands must migrate back to ease pressure on fragile water sources. But they must learn to survive different weather and practise a new agriculture that requires more mastery over the elements.
Those who remain in the nice climes must adopt cutting-edge technology to produce more while applying less pressure on the environment. I hope there is good money to be made from feeding those multitudes.