Ecologically Nothing Ever Really Dies

EcoLogically Nothing Ever Really Dies, Only transformed from one useful form to another...

Friday, September 20, 2013

Climate change threatens future crop yields in southern Africa

I have come across a lot of studies dedicated to understanding how climate change can affect crops and food security. What has always caught my eye is the varied results that come from these studies. The suggested impacts vary significantly from one region, country, district and community to the other in such a way that it is difficult to say for sure what the impacts would be. How much are crop yields going to be affected? Where is the highest impacts going to be? what crops are most at risk etc. These are questions that these different studies couldn't satisfy me on. Yet, these studies remain the most solid and authoritative works on climate change, agriculture and food security and therefore the go-to for policy makers, development agencies and governments etc for insight into possible avenues for action to adapt to climate change. What appeared to be a lack of coherence and consistence in these different studies would surely discourage action, i thought. If one study said maize yields would decline significantly yet another says maize yields could increase, that to me simply screamed "We aren't sure what we are talking about, so maybe you [farmer, policy guy, development agency etc.] should just wait and see." These end users of scientific research would be forgiven for thinking "These guys [scientists] need to make up their minds" and sitting on their hands.

Uncertainty about how the impacts of climate change on agriculture and food security will unfold is daily bread for scientists. They spend entire careers advancing our understanding of what we dont know about these impacts as a way of being more sure about what we know. However, this may not be of interest to end users who may simply view this as a sign that the science is not yet solid enough to encourage action. This as i found out in a recent study is not the case. There is a strong enough message coming from climate change impact studies on crop production to warrant action. 

I carried out a review study with collegues Olivier Crespo and Sepo Hachigonta which was published in the Global and Planetary Change Journal and summarised in a policy brief. The study focused on southern Africa, my home region. Multiple reports have alluded to the fact that this is one of the most vulnerable agricultural regions regions in the world owing to low adaptation capacity, low incomes, high dependence on natural resources and climate dependent agriculture. We sought to investigate this assertion by reviewing multiple studies carried out over the region and drawing an overall picture of what the studies said about the impacts of climate change on crop production in the region.

Map of southern Africa
The message was quite clear. Climate change threatens crop yields in the region. Most important food crops in the region where studied including maize, sorghum, groundnuts, millet, beans and wheat. The most studies crop being maize, the staple crop of the region. The study clearly showed that maize yields would likely decline by up to 18 % by the end of the 21st century. Given the importance of maize in southern Africa, this suggests that food security in the region is under threat from climate change and therefore action towards adaptation is warranted. This is especially so for smallholder farmers that are the most vulnerable to climate induced crop failures. The study also showed that the severity of climate change impacts on crop yields are likely to increase as we move further into the 21st century. climate change impact on crop yields for the early 21st century (up to 2039) was uncertain, on average showing no change in crop yields. Further into the mid century (2050s), crop yields were projected to decline by up to 18 % and even further decline by up to 30 % towards the end of the 21st century. 

While uncertainty remains and is clearly highlighted in the study, a consistent message was obtained when studies were viewed as a whole, which suggests crop yields in the region will likely suffer from a changing climate and therefore there is need for adaptive action in southern Africa, especially for vulnerable farming groups like rain dependent smallholder farmers. What remains unclear however is the impact of climate change on crops at the at the local level. The region is too big to make generalisation and therefore further research for particular locations and crops is necessary especially if we are to target smallholder farmers for adaptation. Given this backdrop, a wait and see attitude is not defensible.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Empowering smallholder farmers in Africa out of Poverty

I came across this Video on Youtube recently. It pretty much sums up my thoughts on loosening the clutch of poverty in rural smallholder farming communities in Africa. I like how roger thurow, author of the book The last hunger season considers the term "hungry farmers" an oxymoron. A hungry subsistence farmer, what could be more absurd? Most importanly i respect the approach to his message. It is a more people based approach, contrary to the usual data and global statistics approach which isnt supported by impactful action. This obssession with stats mostly allows the few success stories to fall through the gaps and remain undocumented or just simply lumped up with the broader perspective. Farmers who are turning their lives around amidst significant challenges through scalable approaches and can be used as beacons of what may be and possibly adopted by other are usually broad brushed under "severely food insecure and undernourished communities." A lot of it as Roger puts it comes from a lack of respect for the ability and potential of smallholder farmers in the region to feed themselves, their communities and the continent as a whole. He even goes as far as encouraging investors to view smallholder farmers as worthy customers who arent "too poor, too remote, too insignificant" from whom good business could be made. The one acre fund was able to recongise that it is not handouts they need but the opportunity to prove their ability by mutually beneficial investment.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Doing away with the unfortunate African development narrative

I was reading recently about how globally poverty has been on the decline. It got me thinking...really! While this could be true once you bunch all corners of the world together, it couldn’t be more inaccurate the moment you unbundle poverty regionally.  50 years ago, the percentage of people that were living in poverty would have been more that for today. This could simply be because china and a lot of other highly populated Asian countries were in that bracket. The rapid growth of their economies in the recent past would have levelled those figures off, reducing the proportion of the world's population living below the poverty line ($1 a day). In Sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers of people living and being born into poverty have in fact been on the rise. The region has become less and less able to feed its people. The green revolution failed to take off, partly due to slow technology transfer and assimilation, poor human and institutional capacity development and perhaps a region not ready for a science-based development. Clearly the people of this region have a way of sustaining their livelihoods which is rooted in a particular tradition which is hard to uproot. In my mind, improving the lives of people in the region does not lie in disengaging this deep seated way of doing things but rather working with them and improving them where possible.  Yet the common narrative has always been that such ways are backward and counter-productive. Lets look at it differently for a minute.

Our measures of development have commonly been economic. The higher a country or region's income, the more developed it is. I have always shied away from this narrative because I think its inadequate. Sub-saharan Africa may be economically behind a lot of other regions, but it is developed in another sense. Take social safety nets for example (off the top of my head of course). In many parts of the region, there are strong social structures that allow a more equitable sharing of resources and wealth (since we are so in love with this narrative) than most other “developed'' regions. This social capital (there I go again) can be used positively to ease a region out of poverty. In a small village somewhere in Africa, a chief is responsible for collecting grain from well-to-do members of the society for redistribution to the less privileged in that community, the elderly, widows and orphans. Further to that, the extended family of these less privileged consider it their responsibility to take care of their poor. If this isn’t development, what is?  The African labour force is in my mind a very productive force. it is frequently presented as dwindling as a result of HIV/AIDS. Im thinking, these economically active people plough back most of their resources and earnings into their extended families and communities and less on hard drugs or exotic holidays (im being cynical of course...the point remains). Shouldn’t this be considered an asset to be taped into for developmental purposes? That same sense of responsibility and communal-ism has been known to prop-up failing economies through remittances from the diaspora. Imagine how much more could be done with the same mind-set on stable economies. If I had my way, the description of sub-Saharan Africa as “less developed” would be abandoned for the truer description, “low-income”. 

Maybe development initiatives for Africa should first focus on local solutions to local problems. These can be shown up for an assimilation of more “progressive” approaches as known in the common narrative. If local farmers are happy to share the few cattle they have for labour to allow each other to produce food for themselves and the extended community, how much more could be done with better technologies and the same mind-set. I say faster and far reaching development. Cutting out an over-reliance on external funds and aid to allow for the growth and spread of these most basic tenets of a strong social structure will allow an even more useful contribution of whatever external resources the continent has access to. No amount of external resources and support without local initiative and citizen inspired transformative involvement will suffice. It all starts with realising that there is value in the way the African system commonly operates and therefore trying to work with it to achieve the mostly adored “economic” standard of development. I talk of agriculture and poverty almost intricately because in the sub-Saharan African context, economies are strongly tied to an agriculture that is climate depended. The looming threat of climate change seems to suggest in my mind that the foundations of development in Africa need to be dug deep. In this sense, digging deep could mean simply entrenching further the positive constructs of the African system and using them as a basis for tackling a new challenge. In this could be the way for an African upward surge out of poverty into development, economic or otherwise. Not forgetting of course the plethora of challenges the continent is and has experienced that would hinder such progress. Today is a good day, I’m not interested in exploring the gloomy side of things.