Op-Ed: Ethiopia has a Nobel Prize and a roaring economy. Can it also gain a food secure future?

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By Izabella Koziell, Program Director, CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE)

If you’re of a certain age, Ethiopia may still invoke images of its devastating mid-1980s famine that gripped people around the world – including celebrities. But the once impoverished country has redefined itself in just over a generation.

It is now Africa’s fastest-growing economy, and this week, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in resolving the country’s two-decade-long conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.

But these bright prospects come with risks. It is a country that is still struggling with communal conflict. And the peace-building process with Eritrea is seen by some as stalled.

This political backdrop of hope and risk mirrors Ethiopia’s future in two other equally critical spheres: feeding its people and protecting its environment. A quickly growing population means more people to feed, and the land and water resources it relies on to grow food are struggling to cope under intensive cultivation, rapid urbanisation and the impacts of climate change.

If Ethiopia does not act quickly to protect and conserve its natural resources, it may struggle to continue its path of progress.

Ethiopia is highly dependent on agriculture, accounting for at least 40 per cent of its economy and employing some three-quarters of the workforce.

And despite decades of investments into restoring Ethiopia’s land, over 85 per cent is still either moderately or severely degraded, meaning its capacity to produce nutritious and bountiful food is hampered.

At the same time, alternating cycles of floods and droughts are making food production more difficult, and are only likely to worsen under climate change. Getting Ethiopia’s agriculture right has never been more challenging, or essential.

One way to do this is to turn changing climatic conditions into advantages. It is no longer enough just to be resilient to climate change; Ethiopians must convert these challenges to their own benefit.

Pastoralists in the lowlands of Afar, for instance, are now harnessing worsening floods to create new sources of irrigation in areas once inhospitable to crops and livestock grazing. By spreading flood water across land near seasonal streams, new areas of land were now enriched enough to support high value crops. Combined with better data and improved farming practices, the area saw major increases in crop and forage yields.

Likewise, in the highlands of Northern Ethiopia, severe erosion and prolonged droughts converged to create a situation where food, water and soil nutrients were scarce, undermining the subsistence and livelihoods of local communities.

But agricultural researchers from the global consortium CGIAR, along with local experts, supported communities to terrace the steep land, change grazing practices, target fertilizers more effectively and introduce new crops. This mix of techniques reduces soil erosion and turns degraded land back into productive plots, helping to meet mounting food demand.

These kinds of integrated approaches are delivering real results across Ethiopia and so should be expanded to help the country nourish both its people and land.

One way to ensure these big steps are taken is by incorporating the best knowledge and tools into existing programmes, including improved access to climate-smart technologies, such as high tech soil analysis or state-of-the-art seeds. To do this, they must be available to Ethiopia’s smallholder farmers at an affordable cost.

For example, tax cuts or innovative financing can expand the use of technologies such as solar-powered irrigation, helping encourage the transition to cleaner energy whilst boosting farmer productivity.

The Commission on Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture, which brings together renowned scientists, policy-makers, business-leaders, farmer organisations and more, has echoed this call. It aims to provide a roadmap to ensure farmers in Ethiopia and across the Global South can access – and help improve – these innovations.

Building long-term resilience against food shortages must start by safeguarding Ethiopia’s food, water and land resources. Failing to act could exacerbate the already high levels of hunger and place new strains on the Ethiopian government.

And with the global stage looking to Ethiopia and the Nobel Peace Prize as a beacon of hope in troubling times, the country can seize the moment to strengthen its leadership in protecting food security for years to come.

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