A new study on the effects of climate change on agriculture offers some rare hopeful news for African farmers. Researchers say that lowered crop production expected as a result of rising global temperatures can be overcome by adopting under-utilized farming techniques.
Scientists have long-warned that Africa, with its deep reliance on subsistence rain-fed agriculture, is particularly vulnerable to a changing climate.
Higher temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns are expected to plague the region with harsher growing climates and an increase in emergency droughts and floods.
But Peter Cooper, a researcher in a new study published this week, says that, as far as agriculture is concerned, the apocalyptic predictions for this chronically-food-insecure continent need not come to pass.
"Countries, and the continent itself, could be a food exporter - they could have food surpluses - even under climate change, just through the adoption of what is known now," said Peter Cooper.
The new study from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics calculates that there is no reason why most farmers on the continent will not be able to significantly surpass current yields even after a rise of three degrees Celsius.
Scientists found that basic techniques such as fertilizer use, rainfall management, and crop rotations, if adopted, would more than compensate for adverse climate trends for farmlands in the region's semi-arid tropics.
Key to the researchers' finding is that while most of the world has significantly changed the way food is grown over the last fifty years, sub-Saharan Africa has lagged terribly behind.
The use of fertilizer in the region has done little more than stagnate over this time period. Despite beginning at the same levels of fertilizer use in 1960, South Asia now consumes more than ten-fold the rate found in sub-Saharan Africa.
Cooper says that Africa's policy makers should immediately begin pushing policies that promote better farming practices. He says the benefits will be felt long before climate change becomes the serious challenge many soon expect.
"If you help farmers adopt agricultural technologies that are available now, you are going to improve their livelihoods hugely before the climate change, and even after, when climate change becomes a serious threat in 20 or 30 years time, they will still be getting higher yields than they are right now," he said. "So it's a win-win situation: improving livelihoods now, and helping them adapt to climate change when it comes."
The researchers found that the expected rise in temperatures would have a much greater effect on crop production than the light shift in rainfall patterns predicted by the scientists' climate models. Hotter temperatures can cause lower crop yields due to declining photosynthetic efficiency and faster plant maturation rates.
A study published last year found that the Tanzanian economy could suffer a two-thirds drop in gross domestic product before the end of the century if the East African nation does not immediately begin adapting its agricultural industry to face expected shifts in climate. The researchers of this previous study suggested it serve as a warning to all countries in the region.