Is Sustainable Food Security Possible in Ethiopia?

Zemedu Worku, PhD, 

[agricultural specialist, former Dean of Alemaya College and long time expert at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)]


Present Situation

The country faces a significant food gap. This has been mainly due to the poor performance of the country's agriculture. Smallholder farmers cultivate about 95% of the land presently used for food production. For these farmers, agriculture is both a way of life as well as the primary source of livelihood. Their productivity level is subsistence and in some cases below subsistence not only of food but also of fuel, fodder and fiber. These low levels of productivity are attributed to many factors, in particular:


Land holding policy: The current policy creates tenure insecurity for the majority of the smallholder farmers (0.5 to 2.0 ha) and prevents them from long-term planning and investing to improve their holdings. Moreover, farmers are faced with demographic and other socio-economic constraints. Furthermore, the available institutional support is inadequate to mitigate crop failure. On the other hand, government agents burden the farmers by demanding various taxes even during periods of natural calamity.

Soil fertility: On the whole, the soil is very low in fertility due to soil erosion, leaching, cultural practices and extensive cultivation for many years.

Droughts and floods: These two have become a common phenomenon and cost, at times, thousands of human and animal lives, causing large scale destruction, loss of crops and forcing thousands, particularly the young and able bodied, to migrate leaving behind old men, women and children.

Disease and pests: On the average, the pre and post -harvest losses due to diseases and pests is 30-40%.

Technologies: We have not been able to design appropriate technologies (for land preparation, crop establishment, irrigation etc.) for a range of ecological settings to maximize production ,minimize losses (pre and post-harvest) and increase value added (processing). Appropriate technologies with distinctive advantage over existing ones for harnessing the different agro-ecological areas are generally lacking. Most of the draft animals for agricultural operations are generally weak and the harnessing system is inefficient.

Illiteracy: The literacy rate in 1998/99, including students enrolled in primary, academic, institutes of higher learning and extension, is about 6.3m (10.2% of the population). The literacy rate for the rural population is far less than the above figure. The literacy campaign embarked upon during the Derg regime was a good start for the nation on the whole but short-lived as it was terminated by the present government.

Health services: Primary health care is not within the reach of the rural population. The health services of the country in 1998/99, excluding those outside the Ministry of Health, is one doctor for every 43,522 and one nurse for every 12,894 persons.

Social Infrastructure: Social infrastructures such as hospitals, clinics, schools, water supply, etc. are lacking in rural areas. Rural people have to travel long distances in search of these facilities.

Other: Traditional values (taboos) such as not working during certain days of the month (such as Saint Michael, Saint George, etc.) are commonly observed among the farming community of the Orthodox faith.

These conditions make food insecurity and poverty much more severe here than in many developing countries. Taking population growth rates into account, the present rate in food production is a cause for great concern as the current rate of agricultural growth might not be able to meet the expected food supply needs.

Estimated cultivated area, production of major crops and population for the years 1991- 1999 is shown in the following table.

Estimated Area, Production and Population Size

1991-1999 in Million



Area inHectares

Production in Quintals







































According to the table, in 1999 an additional 3.23 million hectares was cultivated as compared to 1991. The Population in 1999 was approximately 61.67 million. In support of this population size, the country's grain production was approximately 88.67 million quintals. This means 1.44 qt. per person annually. This quantity is totally inadequate to provide the required energy intake. In fact, it is about 25 percent of the ideal KCal required.4 Of this, middle class society, mostly the urban population, gets the greater share, which significantly reduces the share of the large segment of the population particularly women and children. The data reveals an absolute gap between total production and total requirements. Therefore, Ethiopia today is unable to provide sustained food supply and adequate diet to millions of its people. Thus debating possibilities of providing adequate food for millions more people than are presently dependent on food aid becomes an imperative.


Future Outlook

The projected population size of Ethiopia in 2010 will be about 83 million. At present rate of consumption of 1.44 qt per capita annually, the country requires about 120 million quintals of grain crops. In 1999, estimated cultivated land was 8.52 million hectares and produced 88.67 million quintals of grain averaging 10.41 qt/ha.

Taking into account the growth performance attained both in crop yield and cultivated land during the last nine years, it is unlikely that the country will meet the food demand of the projected population size of 83m by the year 2010. This assumption is based on two scenarios.

Scenario 1. Let us take the Ministry of Agriculture yield forecast of 17.3 qt/ha to be attained by the year 2005 from the current averaged yield of 12.25 qt/ha. Total expected grain production on 9.0 million hectares (8.52 m/ha cultivated in 1999) would be 156 million quintals to feed about 73 million people (2.13 qt/capita annually)

Scenario 2. If we can increase the average expected yield from the year 2005 from 17.3 qt/ha to 20.0 qt/ha by the year 2010, total estimated grain crops production on 9.0 million hectares would be about 180 million quintals to feed about 83 million people (2.17 qt/capita annually), providing about 1915 KCal per capita daily. Also, the increase in income of certain segments of the population, particularly in urban areas will lead to increased demand for high priced cereals (teff, wheat), livestock and marine products, vegetables and fruits. These figures show that a disproportionate portion of the population particularly women and children will be living on an insufficient diet on a continuous basis.


Thus, growth in agriculture productivity seems not to keep pace with population growth. Above all, biotic and abiotic stresses are expanding and prime farmlands, virgin forests and grasslands are being converted to non-farm uses under the pretext of investment. Those evicted, who were once prime producers become additional consumers. Overall, the present land tenure and land use policies will continue to have a negative impact on production and the productivity of resource-poor farmers. Moreover, the government development policy, agricultural-development-led industrialization (ADLI) does not seem to provide the necessary incentives to the rural sector such as provision of cheaper energy, machinery, farm equipment and tools, chemicals and other services to spin the wheel for accelerated development.


Traditional food crops (teff, wheat, maize, barely, sorghum and millet), which about 40 years ago ensured the food self-sufficiency of the country can no longer do so. The conventional methods for increasing the yield of these crops per unit area can no longer cope with the food needs of the increasing population. The improved technologies promoted through the extension packages based on high production inputs (fertilizer and chemicals), with limited supply of improved varieties, have not benefited all crops nor all farmers. It is also common knowledge that the use of High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) increases the reliance of farmers on purchased inputs. Moreover, it becomes the primary threat to bio-diversity, conservation and to sustainable food production in the future. The use of local land races, in spite of lower yield performance, will continue to be better for the livelihood of resource-poor farmers. For these farmers, minimizing risks is often more important than maximizing returns.

On the positive side, there seem to be a continuous increase in hectarage for producing wheat and maize as opposed to teff and barely. This change is attributed to higher yields attained per unit area of wheat and maize than teff and barely. It indicates that farmers are placing economic over traditional values. As a result, households will be forced to use more wheat and maize and less teff and barely for the preparation of enjera in the future. This shift will ensure the availability of more wheat and maize and possibly at a cheaper price to the large segment of the population and teff will remain a high priced cereal. As a result, a sizable proportion of the population will reduce their dependency on traditional staple crops such as teff and change their eating habits in the future.

Although rice has not been a popular cereal in Ethiopia, globally, it is the most important crop in terms of its contribution to diet and return value to producers. Potato, enset, sweet potato, banana, yam, cassava, plantain, anchoti aroids and coleus will remain important contributors to food security and food self-sufficiency. At present, potato, enset and sweet potato greatly contribute to food security. Research on the future of these crops holds exciting challenges and promises to make significant contributions to the future food supply of the nation.

The following questions however merit greater concern:

Can technologies produced by agricultural research alone bring increases in productivity growth to meet the rising demand for food? Can they sustain natural resources and preserve bio-diversity in the absence of an enabling environment in the areas of rural lands, land and tax policies, and basic services to the rural community?

With the expansion of biotic and abiotic stresses and in a climate of growing competition from non-agricultural sources for land, can we increase productivity to meet the future food demand of the nation at affordable prices?


What should be done?

Rapid population growth will continue to be a challenge in spite of the gains achieved in agricultural research and development. Thus, increasing production and productivity will become more complex than ever before. Therefore, to reduce the country's dependence on food aid, appropriate blends of technologies, services and government reform policies are needed.


The following are important measures to consider.


Technologies for a range of ecological settings which require lower inputs and contribute to sustainable farming systems, targeted to benefit resource-poor farmers and the women who perform more than 50% of farm work.

Continuous improvements of plants by selecting superior individuals and retaining them to propagate the next generation to produce improved landraces, which will contribute to conservation of biodiverstiy as well as to crossbreed with existing individuals to produce High Yielding Varieties but not High Responsive Varieties to inputs.

Continued development, production and supply of seeds of High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) along with landraces in order to augment production. In the case of maize, both improved, open-pollinated varieties and hybrids are required, depending on the efficiency of national seed producers.

Expand the development of early maturing (short duration) varieties to contribute towards higher food production in drought prone areas. So far, appropriate technologies for dry lands and risk prone areas are far from reaching potential users. Thus, major challenges confront the research systems in delivering solutions to current and pending problems of dry land areas.

Amicable systems of irrigation both for large and small scale producers in order to develop some of the estimated 3.5 million hectares available around Abay, Baro, Tekezie and other rivers. In the future, intensive farming to maximize output and income per unit of land, water, energy, labour and capital will be a demographic necessity in our country in order to meet the expanding needs for food, fiber fodder, fuel, jobs and income.

Biotechnology programs should prioritize the development of low-input, sustainable farming systems in marginal, risk prone areas.

The transformation of many commonly uncultivated plant products into foodstuff through adoption of biotechnologies would facilitate new possibilities for augmenting food supplies.

Technologies, including biotechnologies, will remain to be a pre-requisite for the reduction of post-harvest losses and an increase in value added. At present, there is a widespread mismatch between production and post-harvest technologies. Thrashing, drying and storage will have to be improved. The technology should be one that helps to add more economic value to each hour of a woman's work. Thus, the dimension of gender equity should be added to the technology design so that every member of the household derives benefit from the spread of technologies.

There is a need for careful screening of available biotechnological options and their applications in order to identify their ultimate effects on yield, quality and above all on the health of consumers and producers.



Delivery of appropriate extension programs for communicating packages of recommendations be expanded.

Strengthen smallholders organizations and services to boost farmers' bargaining power and legal protection, and increase participation of small producers, particularly women in decision-making,

Improvements of marketing infrastructure including information schemes.

Formation and expansion of marketing cooperatives to facilitate the flow of credit and input to support at Wereda and/or Kebele level .

Improvements in health and literacy, communication and rural electrification.



Divestment of large, virgin forests and grasslands for whatever development it may be without proper assessment of the eco-systems and their habitats as well as their carrying capacity is at best a short-term benefit at the expense of non-renewable natural resources. We should not go through the same path to destroy our non-renewable resources. We had and still have the opportunity to learn from past experiences.

Conducive land policies which guarantee tenure security and provision of incentives for proper management and use of land, forests and water need to be enacted in order to have sustained development. "Sustainability is to leave future generations as many opportunities as, if not more than we have had ourselves"8.

Alleviating the significant food gap and averting the reliance on food aid should be the highest national priority. Thus, the government is responsible for reversing the current and future situation of malnutrition, hunger and famine. In order to achieve this goal, the production and productivity of food must be greatly enhanced through a revision of government policies on agriculture including investments in research, education, health and infrastructure as well as the generation, development and transfer of appropriate technologies. So far, limited investment (0.61% AgGDP) in agricultural research has made possible some technological breakthroughs that have led to increases in yield of certain crops and productivity of livestock. With current and future development needs of the country's agriculture, which is the key economic sector, the country has to invest at least 1.0% over the short-term and 2.0% in the long-term of the value of agricultural output (AgGDP) for research. Sufficient investments in research is imperative in order to attain sustained increase in food, fiber, fodder and fuel production and ensure the overall economic development of this country.


1The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Central Statistic Authority, Statistical Abstract 1999

2This does not include the consumption of enset, roots, tubers, vegetables, fruits, meat, milk and fish. There is no reliable data on production and consumption of the above.

3Extrapolated from Food Composition Table for Use in Ethiopia - Part III. 

4Ethiopian Health and Nutrition Research Institute 1968-1997.

5The Federal Democratic of Ethiopia, Extension Department (2000), MoA, Ethiopia

6Admassu Gebeyehu. Tobia Magazine, 7th year, No.12 July 2000

7Seragddin(1996). Sustainability and Wealth of Nations. First Steps in an Ongoing Journey. World Bank.

8The Federal Democratic of Ethiopia, Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization (2000). Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Article republished with permission from Professor Dessalegn Rahmato, Manager, Forum for Social Studies, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.