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Africa’s Savannahs Are Not a Cost-Effective Solution for Croplands

  • Kim Lewis

New research shows that Africa’s wetter savannahs which include mixtures of grasslands, shrubs and trees are wet enough to produce crops identified as having large growth potential. However, researchers warn the costs of converting this land is significantly higher than originally thought.

The study was conducted by Princeton University and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.

Timothy Searchinger is a research scholar at Princeton University and the lead author of the study entitled “Rethinking Land Conversion Costs in Africa.” He explained why the cost of converting Africa’s wetter savannahs for agriculture is greater than the benefits.

“One of the questions we struggle to find solutions for how to feed people is whether there is a reserve of low environmental cost land in the form of Africa’s savannahs, wetter savannah’s that can be farmed. A number of studies assumed that this vast area has limited impact on climate change or on wild life and biodiversity. And what our study found was that actually converting that land would have high cost compared to the potential benefits,” said the lead study author.

He further added that the real issue is not whether Africa needs to use the savannahs to feed itself. Rather should it be used to feed the rest of the world or provide biofuels for the rest of the world.

“Some people have thought that this is kind of a low cost bread basket for the rest of the world, or a place where biofuels can be made. And what we found when we looked at it in detail is that even if you make optimistic assumptions, converting each acre, hectare of this land would have very high cost in terms of the carbon release and its impact on the atmosphere or in terms ofits biodiversity effects,” explained Searchinger.

The study also found that Africa’s food demand is growing very rapidly and will be required to feed a population twice the size it is now by 2050. It is for this reason that Searchinger said the savannahs and wetlands are meant to feed Africa, not the rest of the world.

He said African governments should recognize the value of the land as a whole and there should be ongoing efforts to determine which areas have the greatest opportunity for food production with the least environmental cost.

Searchinger also warned, “the real issue is first don’t use that land to produce food or to produce biofuels because it’s needed to feed Africans. The second is that because some of it will be needed to feed Africans there should be efforts to decide precisely which areas have the greatest opportunity for food production with the least environmental cost. So we need to go through kind of scientific planning exercises to help identify that and then hopefully African governments can use those kind of enterprises to figure out really where they should focus additional agriculture production,” highlighted Searchinger.

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