• Weather proof

    Public-private partnerships are teaching farmers adaptation strategies that mitigate the effects of climate change on food production.

    Weather proof

    The majority of climate models predict with certainty that temperatures will rise as a result of the effects of climate change. Rainfall patterns are also expected to change and farmers will be faced with more frequent and increasingly harsh weather events, placing increased restrictions on food production.

    Smallholder farmers are particularly vulnerable to climate change – they lack access to inputs and technology that can help mitigate the effects of unfavourable weather.

    In Africa, where the majority of food produced is supplied by smallholder farmers, climate change can have a devastating impact on farming if there are no measures to adapt.

    According to a 2014 report on climate change and smallholder agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the region’s average temperature increase is expected to be the most severe globally.

    Climate models predict rises of between 0.4°C and 2.6°C by 2050. Within the same time frame, sub-Saharan Africa’s population is expected to grow to some 1.5 billion. Due to a combination of population growth and climate change on agricultural production, the number of undernourished will shoot up from 223 million to 355 million.

    The impact of climate change on rainfall is likely to result in an increase in extreme weather events, including intense spells of both drought and flood. In addition, average precipitation will increase in some areas and decrease in others.

    According to AGRA, humid West Africa and Central Africa are set to become wetter with a 2.8% and 2.1% increase in rainfall respectively. Meanwhile the prediction for Southern Africa is a 1.6% decrease in annual precipitation. The report points out that while this might seem an insignificant figure, ‘large areas of Southern Africa are already arid or semi-arid’.

    This means that even a small decline in rainfall – combined with higher temperatures – will have a deeply negative impact on the region’s crop production.

    Smallholder farmers comprise around 80% of all farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, the report states. They typically cultivate small parcels of land, often less than 2 ha in size.

    Continuous cropping and lack of crop diversity, as well as restricted access to reliable irrigation and affordable inputs such as fertiliser, mean the land is often degraded, in turn forcing farmers to practice low-input/low-yield subsistence agriculture.

    The report goes on to describe how most smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa plan their production according to rainfall, which makes them extremely vulnerable to climate change due its impact on rainfall patterns. However, as AGRA points out, with access to reliable weather forecasts, smallholder farmers can take measures to adapt.

    With timely access to climate information, farmers are better able to plan for the long-term consequences of adverse climatic events.

    In the majority of African countries, climate information relevant to farmers is distributed throughout the growing season by national meteorological services (NMS). However, for a multitude of reasons, farmers often cannot obtain these weather reports. In response, several initiatives have been launched.

    A number of international organisations support the NMS in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Madagascar – both technically and financially. Their assistance is fundamental to the availability and dissemination of climate information in a format that is relevant to these farmers.

    The AGRA report also refers to the METAGRI project, which was launched in 2012. Through ‘roving seminars’, it has provided climate information training to more than 7 000 farmers from 3 000 villages, and distributed 3 000 rain gauges in 15 West African countries.

    Perhaps the most ambitious project that brings climate information to smallholder farmers is the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security research programme.

    It works with partners to develop models that communicate seasonal climate forecasts and support climate-informed management for smallholder farmers in 10 countries throughout Eastern, Southern and West Africa. One of the initiative’s pilot projects has already reached more than 5 000 farmers in Senegal’s Kaffrine region.

    As the report suggests, a major challenge that farmers in sub-Saharan Africa face is the deterioration of soil health due to a negative balance of nutrient loss through ‘crop off-take, nutrient leaching and soil erosion’, compared with the low level of nutrient replacement through the application of fertiliser.

    According to AGRA, approximately 80% of sub-Saharan Africa’s arable land is already degraded. What’s more, soil fertility is expected to decline further as the rise in temperatures expedites the rate of soil’s organic-matter decomposition.

    This will effectively lead to nutrient loss and negatively impact the soil’s water retention.

    In the midst of this bleak outlook, however, is good news – with the right tools and techniques, Africa’s smallholder farmers can adapt to the challenges posed by climate change. Across the continent they have already begun to embrace climate-smart farming. In fact, the last 40 years have seen modest yield increases of staple crops. The average maize yield, for example, has grown from 1.1 ton/ha to 1.8 ton/ha.

    Sustainable agriculture is a key focus point for Monsanto, one of the world’s leading seed-development and supply multinationals. According to its sub-Saharan Africa corporate communications unit, most of the firm’s activities in the region focus on ‘delivering higher yields for resource-poor farmers with less inputs, thereby increasing productivity. We believe this is the best way to counter any possible climate or environmental challenges and changes’.

    The company adds, however, that responding to challenges posed by climate change ‘is a dynamic process’ and that there is not a single solution for a single problem.

    According to Monsanto, poverty and malnutrition are the main issues faced by rural communities in the developing world. For this reason, the firm focuses its projects and partnerships on providing farmers with access to innovative ideas for sustainable farming. This, in turn, helps families earn enough income to prepare healthy meals.

    With timely access to climate information, farmers are better able to plan for the long-term consequences of adverse climatic events

    Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) is just one collaboration through which Monsanto and other stakeholders assist farmers in becoming more resilient.

    The project is a public-private partnership between Monsanto and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, as well as agricultural research institutions from Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

    Co-ordinated by the Kenyan-based African Agriculture Technology Foundation, its aim is to provide smallholder farmers with drought-tolerant and insect/pest-protected seed, improving food security and rural livelihood.

    ‘The project uses conventional, marker-assisted and genetic modification to develop high-quality seeds that will improve yield and, consequently, the livelihoods of smallholder farmers,’ states Monsanto.

    According to the firm, the project partners contribute their maize germplasm (basic genetic material used to develop new seed varieties) and expertise to help develop new drought-tolerant hybrids.

    New maize varieties were trialled in Kenya: after six years, the average yield was 4.5 ton/ha – a 2.7 ton/ha increase on the national average of 1.8 ton/ha.

    It is estimated that if WEMA achieves its target scale and yield increases, an additional two million tons of maize will be produced.

    According to project manager Sylvester Oikeh, WEMA is ‘working with private seed companies to deliver at least 10 000 tons of certified seeds produced from at least 25 conventional drought-tolerant hybrids within the next four years’.

    DuPont Pioneer is another company that is involved in a number of partnerships that work to improve the productivity of crops planted by smallholder farmers across sub-Saharan Africa. The firm is a major developer and supplier of advanced plant genetics.

    According to DuPont Pioneer communications head Barbara Muzata, the company collaborated with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and John Deere to develop products that specifically support a conservation-based system of agriculture, designed to sustainably improve the productivity of smallholder farmers in Africa.

    Together, they hope to ‘develop a vibrant market for small-scale, conservation-based cropping systems and affordable equipment for smallholder farmers, first in Ghana and then across the continent’, DuPont Pioneer states on its website.

    Through the project, ‘DuPont Pioneer is identifying locally-adapted and tested maize seed and cowpeas for edible cover crops to prevent soil erosion and to improve soil health. John Deere is developing no-till equipment to test and modify for smallholder farmers in Africa.

    ‘The Howard G. Buffett Foundation, in co-operation with the Ghanaian government, is securing test plots for demonstrating the conservation-based cropping systems and equipment, and has funded a new academic centre near Kumasi that will serve as the focal point of the collaboration.’

    In the statement, DuPont Pioneer president Paul Schickler says: ‘Seed is only one part of the equation, and that is why we are working with organisations such as the Buffett Foundation and John Deere to bring holistic solutions to the table for Africa’s smallholder farmers.’

    In Zanzibar, meanwhile, the Rockefeller Foundation teamed up with AGRA and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture AGRA in support of a rapid-breeding scheme that successfully developed four locally adapted varieties of cassava. After rice, cassava is Zanzibar’s most widely consumed food crop.

    In 2007, the devastating spread of cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) caused major crop losses countrywide. The outbreak was reportedly worsened due to climatic changes.

    The new varieties, however, are not only CBSD- and mosaic disease-resistant but they are drought-tolerant too.

    As AGRA states in its report, there have been a multitude of efforts aimed at helping smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa increase productivity. General yields, however, are still well below the potential that could be achieved if there was greater adoption of improved production practices.

    It adds that as the impact of climate change becomes increasingly evident, farmers will be forced to adapt at a faster rate.

    It is imperative that the interventions already widely implemented across Africa be intensified. Importantly, these include the replacement of conventional crop varieties with new, drought-resistant alternatives and soil-management techniques designed to encourage water-retention.

    However, while farmers have to adapt in terms of seed choices, production practices and planting dates, they may soon be forced to consider changes to the type of farming they’re doing – whether that entails switching crops or opting instead for livestock.

    By Alida van Heerden
    Image: Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security