Should we send food to Africa?

Drought in northern Kenya

“…the tide of the battle against hunger has changed for the better during the past three years. But tides have a way of flowing and then ebbing again. We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts. For we are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction. Man has made amazing progress recently in his potential mastery of these two contending powers.
“But [man] is not yet using adequately his potential for decreasing the rate of human reproduction. The result is that the rate of population increase exceeds the rate of increase in food production in some areas.
“There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.”
  Norman Borlaug, 1970, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

            The North American southwest is experiencing the worst drought in over 1200 years, endangering the livelihood of millions of people. In contrast, in Africa, where many people already live on the edge, the risk is to their lives.
            Here, there is less snow, and it is melting sooner. Rivers are running low and reservoirs are shallow. Ranchers and farmers are suffering from the drought. We know that half of our megadrought is due to climate change. Furthermore, we know climate change is largely due to CO2 from using fossil fuels. 
            In many places, Africans are also experiencing drought. Paradoxically, there is destructive flooding elsewhere in Africa. Drought there is not because Africans are using lots of fossil fuels, of course. The average annual income of a person in Sub-Saharan Africa 1/15th that of the average American; we consume much, much more. People in Africa simply cannot afford the extravagance of fossil fuels we take for granted.
            It seems unfair that our consumptive lifestyle should lead to famine in other parts of the world, but it is difficult to escape that conclusion. 
            However, some of the responsibility for the famine in Africa may rest on the shoulders of a Nobel Prize laureate for peace, although he certainly warned us about growing population in the quote above. Norman Borlaug has been called the father of the Green Revolution because he developed agricultural innovations that increased crop productivity markedly. More food allowed populations to increase—when there was adequate rainfall. However, more productivity has its costs. Expensive non-native seeds must be purchased, and more productive plants required chemical fertilizers, herbicides and other chemicals to grow, yet often depleted the soil.
            Now, with more people and less rain, crops are failing. People have debts that they cannot pay. Animals are dying from thirst and lack of forage. There is an excellent but sad report in the NYTimes on the famine: “’We Buried Him and Kept Walking’: Children Die as Somalis Flee Hunger”. I had to turn away before finishing.
            The African famine reminded me of the great question that faces scholars of Southwestern archeology: why did the Ancestral Puebloans leave the Four Corners region? A series of wet years preceding the departure allowed the population to grow. It is likely that the human population overshot available sustenance during the megadrought of the 1250s. Did the people move because of famine? This theory is supported by evidence of severe strife and bloodshed before the exodus.
            Should we help Africa with food relief? Unfortunately, that would encourage people to congregate near food distribution centers, away from farms. Even though relief will save lives in the short run, it will make people more dependent on foreign aid, and won’t solve the problem of overpopulation. I don’t know what the most humane thing to do is. Perhaps we should follow the advice of a friend who only donates to relief agencies that also provide family planning.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2022



We camped by Butler Wash, west of Bluff, Utah, October 16-18, 2020. The goal was to climb on the slick rock of Comb Ridge, on the other side of the Wash.

I am amazed at how life exists even in very harsh conditions. There is evidence that this area is in a state of severe drought, yet some life persists.

Although they may not be as exciting as plants, the mosses and lichens are colorful. We try to avoid walking on the cryptobiotic soil, which helps to hold the water and binds the soil together–and even make new soil.

I have been intrigued by these little pothole gardens which contain small samples of life.

There are limits to what can live without water. The people who lived in this area, the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly called Anasazi) left during a severe drought and moved south, along the Rio Grande.Their numbers had risen during moist years to a level that the land couldn’t support them during a drought.

Some of the potholes are larger and support multiple species of plants. The larger ones may even have vertebrate animals living in them!

Many potholes are barren. The rock slopes down to the left in this picture; the little surviving life lives where the water lasts the longest.

It has been a long time since the last rain. We’re amazed that anything is still alive; some of the plants are barely holding on in the drought.

Even the prickly pear cactus is shriveled.

A recent article states that human activity is responsible for about half of the drought. For more information, see below.

Although most of the colors are muted deserty, there are a few bright spots.

Having spread its seed, a dried yucca stands on the horizon.

A “megadrought” is defined as a drought lasting 20 years or longer. For comparison, the Dust Bowl of the midwest, although it was terrible, did not qualify as a megadrought.

There isn’t much sign of animal life; we strain to find as much as we can. Gail sees a rabbit, but it’s gone before I turn.

We debate if this comes from big horn sheep or cow,

and wonder if this is deer or sheep, but saw neither animal.

However, we found deer skat in one of the larger pothole gardens.

This tiny fly rested on my thumb after a lizard lunged at it, but missed.

We are amazed to see water in a series of potholes down low. Ty, our old black dog, takes a dip and a drink. The water came down from the rock above when it rained and was collected in a series of little pools. The last rain was September 7th; we were there 40 days since that rain. is a convenient source of information. This map shows the Four Corners Region; the blue pointer aims at Bluff. Rose color is D3 (Extreme Drought) while the brown is D4 (Exceptional Drought–the driest level). Bluff is D3 while the Durango area is D4.

When I asked Jim Hook of Recapture Lodge (in Bluff) when the last rain before October 17th was, he wrote: “The last rain I recorded was on September 7 when we received 0.5 inch. September ends the water year so we ended the last 12 months with 4.57 inches of moisture. Average over the last 100 years is 7.76 inches which isn’t much but it means Bluff only received 59% of “Normal” precip. October actually is our wettest month 🙁 “

The figure above is from the article “Large contribution from anthropogenic warming to an Emerging North American megadrought” by Williams et al., Science, May 2020.

The graph shows soil moisture with the straight line being average, and the red line departure from average, by year. The yellow square on the map is the area of interest–southwest North America. Brown shading denotes the local degree of drought.

The summary of this article states: “Anthropogenic trends in temperature, relative humidity and precipitation from 31 climate models account for 47%… of the 2000-2018 drought severity….” That means that human activity is responsible for about half of the drought that we are facing.

Thank you for reading. Although I have written about drought in my monthly essays, our visit to Comb Ridge made the current drought visible in a way that I wanted to share.


P.S.: While this photoessay talks about drought in an abstract way, there is an excellent article that speaks to the problems that the drought is causing people, animals and plants: I strongly recommend the video that is embedded in the article.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2020