Our only (food) security is our ability to change

The scientific consensus to date is that African agriculture will be hard hit by climate change. The last IPCC report concluded that some African countries might see yields of rainfed crops fall by 50% as soon as 2020; a more recent review has confirmed “high confidence” that agricultural production will be “severely compromised” across much of Africa during the 21st century. However, one shortcoming of most models and statistical studies is – as their authors readily acknowledge – that they do not take into account how farmers, markets and governments adapt to change.

Agricultural adaptation is the explicit focus of a new journal paper by B. G. J. S. Sonneveld, M. A. Keyzer, P. Adegbola and S. Pande, The Impact of Climate Change on Crop Production in West Africa: An Assessment for the Oueme River Basin in Benin. The authors have created a Decision Support Tool for Beninese researchers and policy-makers, which calculates food prices and farmers’ incomes under different adaptation scenarios. Drawing on multiple data sets, the tool’s components are a climatic General Circulation Model, a hydrological model, and functions of crop yields, farmers’ practices and prices (including the effects of domestic trade).

Like any model, the tool’s outputs entail uncertainty. Yet the authors are optimistic about the power of adaptation to overcome the negative impacts of climate change on farming in the Oueme Basin. Comparing two 15-year periods, 1980–2003 and 2004–2030, climate change reduces yields of most crops (cassava, yam, maize, rice, soy, beans, sweet potatoes) but not sorghum, cotton and groundnut. Adaptation via shifting towards the latter crops compensates for lost revenues, with losses reduced even further when price responses to scarcity are considered. Reducing the length of fallows, coupled with modest increases in applied fertilizers and pesticides, can turn losses into revenue gains of up to 67%. There are opportunities too for livestock intensification and new cross-border markets.

Thus simple, affordable practices, supported by functional markets and policies, might be enough to avoid rising rural poverty under climate change, at least for some regions. Greater needs for labour may be limiting to some farmers but an opportunity for others. One trade-off is that shorter fallows and more fertilizer may increase greenhouse gas emissions, but this could be balanced by less expansion of cultivation into areas under natural vegetation. Anyway, African smallholders’ inputs are currently so low that it is hardly ethical or practical to seek reductions.

Africa’s unified voice should provide a realistic picture of future climate change conditions, acknowledging the negative impacts as well as the ability to change. Studies like this example from Benin raise cautious hope that wise policies and investments can enable farmers to minimize climate-related risks to their future food security.

For example, this tool uses sensitivity analyses to estimate the effects of different climate change projections by different General Circulation Models.
Note: The title of this issue is adapted from a widely cited quotation from Dr John Cunningham Lilly

AgClim Letters is a monthly science-policy bulletin from the CGIAR Research Program, Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security program (CCAFS) written by Sonja Vermeulen, CCAFS head of research. Each issue highlights a recent research paper that contributes to current debates, with implications for climate change and agriculture policy. CCAFS is a joint initiative of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the Earth Systems Science Partnership (ESSP), led by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). Views expressed in this message are those of the authors, and do not express the views of the institutions or their donors.


Original article published at www.uncsd2012.org


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