Industries in Depth

Food security: Can war-torn Sudan recover and help address the global food crisis?

Sudan produces cereal grains, oil seeds such as groundnuts and sesame, sugarcane, millet, sorghum, vegetables and fruits. Image: FAO

Brian D’Silva
Strategic Advisor, USAID Agricultural Initiative in Sudan
Abir Ibrahim
Community Lead, Regional Agenda, Africa, World Economic Forum
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Food Security

  • Sudan is the largest agricultural producer in Africa and the Middle East, and seen as a potential “breadbasket” for the region and beyond.
  • Sudan is strategically positioned to address global food scarcity, offering three vital ingredients: massive production potential, a neutral geopolitical position and a strong traditional farming practices.
  • But the country’s food security and agricultural capacity are threatened by the ongoing war, which is already impacting neighbouring countries.
  • As the World Economic Forum prepares for its Special Meeting in Saudi Arabia, we look at Sudan’s agricultural potential, the impact of the war and what will be required to grow the sector.

Sudan has long been viewed as a future “breadbasket” for the Middle East, Africa and beyond, especially with food insecurity on the rise worldwide. However, the country’s own food security, agricultural output and future prospects are increasingly under threat as a result of its ongoing civil war.

Experts rank natural resource shortages of food and water as one of the top five risks facing the world in the next 10 years. This pressing issue will also be on the agenda of the World Economic Forum’s Special Meeting in Saudi Arabia this April.

So, why is Sudan’s agricultural potential so critical for Africa and the Middle East? And how can global and regional cooperation protect and build up the country’s agricultural capacity?

Top 10 Global Risks.
Natural resource shortages are one of the highest-rated global risks. Image: World Economic Forum

Achieving food security at home and abroad

Sudan’s history of ongoing conflict continues to dominate international news headlines about the nation. As Africa’s largest agricultural country by land area, farming is the backbone of its economy, accounting for 60% of total national exports and generating a third of GDP in 2022, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB). Agriculture also provides work for more than half of Sudan’s workforce, the bank adds.

With its large landmass and water resources – including from the Red Sea and the Nile, which it straddles – Sudan is the world's largest exporter of oily seeds such as groundnuts, sunflower, soybean, safflower and sesame as well as sugarcane and sorghum. It is also abundant in vegetables and fruits like mangoes, lemons and oranges, BLNews reports.

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With gold as its top export, Sudan is also one of the top five producers of sesame globally and provides more than 80% of the world’s gum Arabic (acacia gum), which is used in food additives, paints and cosmetics. In addition, Sudan has an underdeveloped fishing industry but with high potential, and is home to more than 110 million livestock, according to BLNews.

These fundamentals mean the country has vast opportunities to both help itself and fulfill the vision of becoming a source of food for the Arab world and beyond. Since the 1970s, the Gulf countries have made major investments in Sudan to shore up the region’s food security.

But Sudan has the right ingredients to address global food scarcity more widely: it offers a potentially massive production potential, has strong traditional farming practices and lies in a neutral geopolitical position.

However, less than a third of farming land is currently in use with low productivity overall. This has been further exacerbated by the continuing global food and energy crises, as well as increases in fertilizer prices, according to the AfDB.

By far the biggest threat to food provision, however, is the continued civil war.

Volume and value of agriculture commodities produced in Sudan
Sudan produces a wide range of farming products. Image: FAO Statistical Database (FAOSTAT); UNCOMTRADE; United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

War threatens Sudan’s agricultural heartland

In July last year, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) found that around 40% of Sudan’s population was experiencing hunger, largely as a result of the conflict. By early February 2024, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) reported that people were dying of starvation and that the number of those experiencing hunger had doubled over the past year. UNICEF has also since highlighted that at least four million children are suffering from acute malnutrition, 700,000 of whom are suffering from “severe acute malnutrition”. High-risk regions such as Darfur, Kordofan and Khartoum are of the greatest concern, the aid agency says.

The ongoing conflict has severely impacted Sudan’s agricultural sector, leading to halts in harvesting, declining production as well as disrupted planting in much of the country. Farmland, livestock and factories have been damaged or destroyed.

The impact of the war on the country’s agricultural sector is not only threatening its own food security but could also impact neighbouring countries that import from Sudan, including Ethiopia, South Sudan, Chad and Egypt, the IRC says.

With Sudan and its neighbours also facing one of the worst displacement crises in the world, according to the UN’s WFP, the pressure on already scarce food resources will be even greater.

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Ending war and transforming Sudan’s agricultural sector

With Ukraine, one of the major “breadbaskets of the world”, still impacted by war, the hope that Sudan could step up and fill some of the food supply gap will depend on several factors.

Bringing the current war to an end and supporting the country’s recovery will be vital to creating a secure environment for farmers to resume their activities without disruption – and without fear of future disruption, the IRC has stated.

There is also an onus on the international community to help with the transformation of Sudan’s agriculture sector – this includes overcoming outdated production techniques. To ensure Sudan can sustainably produce food for its people and the region, modern technologies in cultivation and harvesting processes are needed, according to BLNews.

USAID has stepped in with a $60 million agricultural development initiative. Due to the war, its scope had to be relocated from the capital, Khartoum, to Eastern and Central Sudan. This cropping season, it will cover seven states, providing subsidized inputs for smallholders and livestock owners. At a time when there is an acute shortage of capital and financial institutions are not functioning, this is a major intervention to keep the agricultural sector solvent.

Beyond this immediate response, additional stumbling blocks like inadequate infrastructure and limited access to credit need to be addressed to realize the vision of Sudan as a breadbasket for the world. A stable environment, sound legal frameworks and administrative reforms will be critical to securing the support of regional and international investors. This will only be possible if there is peace and a new government is in place.

Most importantly, Sudan needs the cooperation of its African and Middle Eastern neighbours, along with the international community, to move on from its war-torn history and play a vital part in global trade.

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Industries in DepthFood and WaterGeographies in Depth
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