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April 2015, Volume 21, Number 2

Global: African Agriculture

Africa is on the march economically. Per capita GDP growth in sub-Saharan Africa rose by 4.8 percent per year between 2000 and 2013 in purchasing power parity, the same as in the rest of the world.

Some 300 million Africans are considered to be in the middle class, but over 400 million live on less than $1.25 a day, the World Bank's poverty level. A report released in February 2015 estimated that corporations and corrupt government officials spirit $60 billion a year out of Africa, depriving the continent's 54 countries of taxes and capital needed for development.

For most of the 20th century, Africa was an example of the pessimism of Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 argued that the population grew geometrically while food production grew arithmetically. The widening gap between the number of mouths to feed and food available to feed them was the thesis of Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book, The Population Bomb. Malthus and Ehrlich have so far been wrong, but there are many who believe that a gap between food and people will emerge as nonrenewable resources are exhausted or climate change reduces food production faster than science can increase production.

The Gates Foundation, which marked its 15th anniversary in January 2015, has devoted over $3 billion to improving agriculture in Africa by financing research and extension activities that raise crop yields, improve crop storage facilities, and promote the use of mobile phones for information and financial transactions. Gates confidently predicts that life will continue improving for African farmers as the results of agricultural research and improving infrastructure increase agricultural productivity.

Many organizations distribute mosquito nets to reduce the spread of malaria and other diseases. Many recipients of free or subsidized nets use them to fish, but their fine mesh catches much of the sea life, threatening fish stocks (traditional fishing nets cost $50 each). The mosquito nets are treated, often with the insecticide permethrin, which can kill fish and foul drinking water. A survey of villagers around Lake Tanganyika found that almost 90 percent were using mosquito nets to fish.

Mosquito nets, often produced in China and Vietnam for $3 each, are hung over beds. The carbon dioxide exhaled by people attracts mosquitoes, which land on the mesh, where the insecticide poisons their nervous systems. If used for fishing, the insecticide meant for mosquitoes could wind up in people.

Wealth. According to Credit Suisse, the richest one percent of adults in the global population had 48 percent of the world's wealth in 2014, while the other 99 percent had 52 percent. The richest 80 billionaires on the Forbes list had almost $2 trillion in 2014, the same as the assets controlled by the poorest 50 percent of the world's people (some 1,645 people were listed by Forbes as billionaires in 2014).

Religion. Christianity has long been the world's largest religion, but Islam is growing faster, and Pew projects that the number of Muslims will surpass the number of Christians by 2070, largely because Muslims are younger and have more children. A quarter of the world's Christians live in sub-Saharan Africa; the African share of Christians is expected to rise to 40 percent by 2050.

In 2010, Pew estimated there were 2.2 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims and that there would be 2.9 billion Christians in 2050 and 2.8 billion Muslims. Smaller religions included a billion Hindus in 2010 and 500 million Buddhists; there were also 1.1 billion unaffiliated people.

China is the wild card in many global religious projections. Pew estimated that in 2010 about five percent of Chinese were Christian, 18 percent were Buddhist, 22 percent followed folk religions, and 50 percent had no religion. Some speculate that, if there were religious freedom in China, many of those with no religion would become Christians, which would delay the date at which Islam is the largest religion.

The share of Christians in the US is projected to fall from almost 80 percent in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050. The number of US Muslims is projected to surpass the number of US Jews by 2035.