Southern African Regional Poverty Network (SARPN) SARPN thematic photo
Regional themes > Food security Last update: 2020-11-27  

 Related documents

Understanding how HIV/AIDS, agricultural systems, and food security are linked

Lori M. Hunter

Population Reference Bureau and University of Colorado, Boulder

April 2007

SARPN acknowledges Alfred Hamadziripi as the source of this document.
[Download complete version - 58Kb < 1min (5 pages)]     [ Share with a friend  ]


Both hunger and HIV/AIDS receive places of prominence within the eight objectives of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Goal 1 is to "Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger." Goal 6 is to "Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases."1 Although presented as distinct goals, these conditions are closely intertwined in the lives of millions of people, however, and advancement toward one goal requires consideration of the other.

Although significant progress has been made in reducing undernourishment globally, the pace must be accelerated to meet the MDG hunger goal by the target date of 2015. During the 1990s, developing countries reduced the number of undernourished people by only 1 percent, or approximately 9 million people. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that, in 2000-2002, 33 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa remained undernourished.2 Although this represents an improvement from 36 percent a decade prior, it remains far from MDG goals. Unfortunately, undernutrition is actually increasing in some regions, including the Near East and North Africa.

Regarding MDG goals and HIV/AIDS, even with improved access to prevention and treatment such as antiretroviral medications, the number of people living with HIV/AIDS continues to grow. Indeed, nearly 40 million individuals are currently HIV-positive and, in 2006, 4.3 million people were newly infected with HIV.3

Although rarely linked in official documents and activities, HIV/AIDS likely exacerbates the struggle to reduce undernutrition due to the pandemic's impacts on agricultural systems.

The Links: HIV/AIDS and Rural Agricultural Systems

Although HIV/AIDS was considered primarily an urban issue in the early years of the pandemic, many rural regions of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as urban ones, now have high HIV prevalence. In South Africa, for example, surveillance data with pregnant women suggest similar high prevalence rates of between 23 percent and 26 percent both inside and outside of major urban areas.4 Although overall rates are lower in India, both urban and rural prevalence rates are approximately 3 percent.5 Since rural residents typically have less access to health care, testing, and counseling, the pandemic may be more difficult to combat in these regions.6

In addition, rural households experience HIV/AIDS in ways that are specific to their setting and distinct from their urban counterparts. These distinct impacts are often related to the high level of dependence on agricultural production as the primary food supply for rural households. Subsistence farming systems rely heavily on humans, most often women, for tilling and tending crops. Because of the extent to which HIV/AIDS makes people ill, disables them when very ill, and then causes deaths, it places considerable strain on rural agricultural production.

In fact, in sub-Saharan Africa, 65 percent of the power for land preparation is provided by people, with 25 percent by draft animals and only 10 percent from engines.7 Clearly, adequate agricultural production depends on available power, especially human labor in regions with fewer technological inputs.

In settings where this subsistence agriculture is the norm, HIV/AIDS retards agricultural production, and threatens food security, in several ways. HIV/AIDS scholars Alex de Waal and Alan Whiteside ascribed the term "new variant famine" to characterize the association between HIV/AIDS and food security.8 They argue that the HIV/AIDS pandemic is resulting in unique pressures on agriculture systems related to, for example, the loss of labor and the loss of other forms of household assets.

Characteristics of the 'New Variant Famine'

Reducing the labor available for agricultural production is the HIV/AIDS pandemic’s most straightforward impact on food security and hunger. Clearly the disease affects the potential labor provided by infected individuals, yet it also influences the availability of other household members, because they must care for sick individuals. Culturally mandated mourning periods further reduce labor available for agricultural activities. As an example, in South Africa, Zulu widows must typically engage in a year-long ukuzila, a mourning period that requires special clothing and the restriction of work activities, including tending fields.9

Reductions in available human labor influence household agricultural production and related food security in several ways. Previously tended land may be left fallow, resulting in less food production. In addition, important tasks such as weeding may be postponed, therefore reducing yields.10 Labor shortages can also change what crops are planted. In Kenya, for example, adult mortality influences cropping patterns although the impacts depend upon the role of the deceased in the household. In many cultures, men are more likely to engage in market activities and the death of an adult male often lowers production of "cash crops" such as coffee, tea, and sugar. In contrast, grain crops suffer shortfalls following the death of an adult female. In both situations, HIV/AIDS mortality shapes food security and hunger through reduced income from the market in the case of foregone "cash crops," or through less direct consumption in the case of grain crops.11

HIV/AIDS-related changes in crop production may also threaten access to agricultural land itself. In regions where land tenure is not secure, households may lose rights to land not regularly used. This is of particular concern for widows and child-headed households in cultural contexts with patriarchal land rights since widows may lose their assets to their deceased spouse's relatives. Such is the case in Lesotho, where households have adopted strategies such as renting land to others to ensure that agricultural land stays in their control.12 These sharecropping strategies have also been identified in South Africa. In Uganda, however, widows are reluctant to rent out land for fear of losing their rights.13 In South Africa, households have used another coping strategy—hiring casual labor to assist in agricultural activities and ensure continued access to their land.14

Also characteristic of the "new variant famine," HIV/AIDS may exacerbate poverty, and therefore alter the use of other household assets that affect agricultural production and food security. This is true particularly if the infected individual had been a wage-earner. In addition to lost wages, HIV/AIDS-affected households incur new expenses related to health care and funerals. Indeed, research in Ethiopia found that the sale of animals resulted in lower household use of important animal byproducts such as milk and manure, and the sale of the last ox, in particular, reduced plowing potential.15 Fewer financial resources may also mean lower levels of such purchased agricultural inputs as fertilizers.

The loss of agricultural knowledge is another way HIV/AIDS threatens food security. Because AIDS mortality is highest among prime-age adults, important information on managing agricultural land is often lost when they die. Research in Mozambique, for example, illustrates the importance of the intergenerational transfer of knowledge about seeds for maintaining agricultural systems. Surveys and interviews with farmers in the Chуkwи district of Mozambique revealed that HIV/AIDS-affected households had less access to seed and seed information.16 Respondents most often noted parents as a key source of information on seeds, illustrating the important impact of the loss of prime-age adults on transfer of local agricultural knowledge.

  1. United Nations (UN), The Millenium Development Goals Report 2006 (New York: UN, 2006).
  2. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The State of Food Insecurity in the World (Rome: FAO, 2006).
  3. Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), AIDS Epidemic Update: December 2006 (Geneva: UNAIDS, 2006).
  4. UNAIDS, UNICEF, and World Health Organization (WHO), South Africa Epidemiological Fact Sheets on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 2004 Update, accessed online at, on March 29, 2007.
  5. Lalit Dandona et al., "A Population-Based Study of Human Immunodeficiency Virus in South India Reveals Major Differences From Sentinel Surveillance-Based Estimates," BMC Medicine 4, no. 31 (2006).
  6. UNAIDS, "HIV/AIDS Epidemic Is Shifting From Cities To Rural Areas—New Focus On Agricultural Policy Needed," FAO Press Release, June 22, 2000, accessed online at, on March 29, 2007; and Daphne Topouzis and Jacques du Guerny, Sustainable Agricultural/Rural Development and Vulnerability to the AIDS Epidemic (Geneva: UNAIDS and WHO, 1999), accessed online at, on March 29, 2007; and Dandona et al., "A Population-Based Study of Human Immunodeficiency Virus in South India Reveals Major Differences From Sentinel Surveillance-Based Estimates."
  7. Brian G. Sims and Josef Kienzle, Farm Power and Mechanization for Small Farms in Sub-Saharan Africa (Rome: FAO, 2006).
  8. Alex de Waal and Alan Whiteside, "New Variant Famine: AIDS and Food Crisis in Southern Africa," The Lancet 362, no. 9391 (2003):1234-37.
  9. Paul C. Rosenblatt and Busisiwe Catherine Nkosi, "South African Zulu Widows in a Time of Poverty and Social Change," Death Studies 31, no. 1 (2007): 67-85.
  10. Scott Drimie, "HIV/AIDS and Land: Case Studies From Kenya, Lesotho and South Africa," Development Southern Africa 20, no. 5 (2003): 647-58.
  11. Takashi Yamano and T.S. Jayne, "Measuring the Impacts of Working-Age Adult Mortality on Small-Scale Farm Households in Kenya," World Development 32, no. 1 (2004): 91-119.
  12. Matљeliso M. Mphale, Emmanuel G. Rwambali, and Mokhantљo G. Makoae, HIV/AIDS and Its Impacts on Land Tenure and Livelihoods in Lesotho (2002), accessed online at, on March 29, 2007.
  13. Tony Barnett, The Effects of HIV/AIDS on Farming Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia (Rome: FAO, 1994).
  14. Drimie, "HIV/AIDS and Land."
  15. Elisabeth Meze-Hausken, "Migration Caused by Climate Change: How Vulnerable Are People in Dryland Areas?" Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 5, no. 4 (2004): 379-406.
  16. Rachel Waterhouse, "The Impact of HIV/AIDS on Farmers' Knowledge of Seeds: Case Study of Chуkwи District, Gaza Province, Mozambique," Links Project Case Study No. 4 (Maputo, Mozambique: FAO and International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, 2005), accessed online at, on March 29, 2007.

Octoplus Information Solutions Top of page | Home | Contact SARPN | Disclaimer