African agriculture 'must be transformed' to survive climate change

Agriculture in parts of sub-Saharan Africa will have to be transformed to continue to produce key food crops there, according to research.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change, examined the likely effect of different climate change scenarios on nine crops that constitute 50% of food production in sub-Saharan Africa.

Watering plants with a watering can © 123RF

Maize, beans and bananas are the most at risk crops, according to the study, called Timescales of transformational climate change adaptation in sub-Saharan African agriculture.

The report outlined time frames for changes in policy to maintain production levels and avoid risk to food security and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

Six of the nine crops studied are expected to remain stable under moderate and extreme climate change scenarios, the study found. But up to 30% of areas growing maize and bananas, and up to 60% of areas producing beans, are projected to become unviable by the end of the century.

The study claimed that in these areas, transformations such as changing the type of crop grown, improving irrigation systems, or even moving away from agriculture, will need to take place as soon as 2025.

More specifically the study predicts that banana growing regions in West Africa such as Ghana Togo and Benin, and maize growing regions in Southern Africa, for example Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, will need to undergo transformation within the next ten years.

It also claimed that 1.85m hectares of bean cropping systems in Uganda and Tanzania, responsible for growing 41.4 % of the total sub-Saharan African bean supply, will be unable to do so by 2100.

Growing of millet, sorghum, cassava, groundnut and yams is projected to remain stable for the rest of the century.

The study said immediate action was needed because solutions, such as breeding improved crops, can take at least 15 years.

“This study tells where, and crucially when, interventions need to be made to stop climate change destroying vital food supplies in Africa,” said Julian Ramirez-Villegas, lead author of the study, working with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

The study includes geographically-specific investment priorities for affected countries. These include improving agronomy, irrigation options and agro-climatic advisory services available to farmers, as well as breeding crops with increased resistance to climate change, switching to alternative crops that have higher tolerance to heat and drought, and exploring alternative livelihood strategies, such as the introduction of livestock.

“It can take decades to adjust national agricultural development and food security policies,” said Andy Jarvis, co-author of the paper who leads CCAFS research on “climate-smart” agricultural practices.

“Our findings show that time is running out to transform African agriculture. This will require not only increased funding but also a supportive policy environment to bring the needed solutions to those affected.

“We also need to ensure that the needs of women and marginalised groups are built into adaptation policies, to ensure they can be successfully implemented.”

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