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Climate Change May Overwhelm Farmers

  • Joe DeCapua

A farmer picks his maize in a field near the house and birth place of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Qunu, South Africa, Wednesday, June 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

A farmer picks his maize in a field near the house and birth place of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Qunu, South Africa, Wednesday, June 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

A new study says the “pace and severity of climate change” may overwhelm small-scale farmers in Africa. The study describes those farmers as the “mainstay of food production” on the continent. The findings were released at the African Green Revolution Forum in Addis Ababa.

The 2014 African Agriculture Status Report says small-scale farmers are already struggling to keep up with the effects of climate change.

Dr. David Sarfo Ameyaw is managing editor of the report and Director of Strategy, Monitoring, Learning and Evaluation at AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

He said, “Small-scale farmers are the backbone of African agriculture. About 70-percent of the rural population in sub-Saharan Africa are small-scale farmers. They produce about 80-percent of the food need in Africa.”

Small-scale farmers grow most of the staple crops in Africa on plots of land usually ranging two to 10 hectares. They lag far behind farmers in many other countries in cereal production with about one-point-five tons per hectare compared with over five tons elsewhere.

“About 90-precent of these farms are rain-fed, which means that they depend on the weather. Weather is rainfall. Weather is drought. Weather is [an] increase in temperature. They are [more] exposed to these climate effects than any other part of the world. On top of that most of them use their own labor or family labor. They are not mechanized,” he said.

The AGRA report said farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are “contending with an increase in average temperatures.”

“It’s been projected that within the next 35 years the increase in temperature will be between one-point-five to two-point-five degrees [Celsius]. This major rise in temperature brings a lot of issues to Africa food security. It is going to affect reduction in yield, which is already low – increase invulnerability to pests and diseases that will kill most of the livestock,” said Ameyaw.

Climate change is also expected to affect the average length of the growing season, which could reduce already low crop yields.

Ameyaw said to mitigate the effects of climate change, African farmers are urged to adopt – what’s called – climate smart agriculture. It includes improved soil management.

“We are talking about farmers being able to adopt both organic and inorganic nutrient enriching technology to improve their soil fertility. Things that we promote are the right use of inorganic and organic fertilizer, soil tillage, the right use of cultivating the land. Putting things like legumes and cereals together to increase the soil nutrient content,” he said.

Another recommendation is the adoption of new crop varieties that rely less on manufactured fertilizers -- or have a higher tolerance for heat or drought. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa official said plant breeders are also increasing both the productivity and nutritional value of crops.

He said, “In AGRA, what we do is to be able to help African scientists. Currently, we have trained about 200 Africa crop breeders. We have been able to release over 400 Africa varieties. About 80-percent of these varieties have been commercialized. When I say ‘commercialized’ it means it has been multiplied by Africa seed companies.”

The new varieties include maize, sweet potato, sorghum, soya and cassava. Ameyaw says they are not genetically modified.

“No, no, no, no, no. AGRA, as an organization, doesn’t promote GMO. We are talking about conventional breeding to improve varieties that will be adopted by the farmers and that can be able to withstand the climate change that we are going through.”

Ameyaw said, “Despite climate change, there is enormous potential for smallholder-led agricultural growth.” But he adds, “There is an urgent need to increase investment and expand climate smart agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa.”

He estimated that would cost more than $1,600 per smallholder farmer each year for 10 years.

“Through donors and other people, we will be able to invest about 10-percent of these amounts. Governments would invest about 50-percent. And private sector will invest about 40-percent of this amount to transform Africa agriculture by 2020.”

Investments, he said, are needed for such things as research and development, the training of scientists, reducing post-harvest waste through better processing, storage and transportation and modern marketing techniques.