FANRPAN Annual High Level Regional Food Security Policy Dialogue 2010

How to beat chronic hunger in Africa in the face of climate change

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26 August 2010
Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda
Reuters AlertNet Blog

Next week, Namibia is playing host to the annual Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) Regional Food Security Policy Dialogue, where over 200 policymakers, farmers, agricultural product dealers, scientists and non-governmental organisations from across Africa and the world will gather to address African priorities on climate change and its impacts on food security, agricultural development and natural resource management.

Stagnant agricultural productivity is a constant battle in Africa, exacerbated by limited access to agricultural inputs, to water, to markets and to knowledge. The impacts of climate change add yet another obstacle in front of African farmers who are seeking to sustain themselves and their families.

Agriculture must be viewed as a vital force in our global mission to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), especially since the World Bank has calculated that agricultural growth is at least twice as effective at reducing poverty than growth originating in any other sector.

And Africa's agricultural sector has the potential not only to feed its own people but to become the breadbasket of the world. A recent report by consulting firm McKinsey and Company estimated that Africa produced only 10 percent of the world's crops despite representing a quarter of land under cultivation. In another report, they noted that 60 percent of the world's uncultivated arable land lies in Africa with the potential for African yields to grow in value more than three-fold by the year 2030, from $280 billion today to $880 billion.

To achieve this, agricultural tools and knowledge must be made accessible to farmers to increase their yields and adapt to new climate scenarios. Africa needs its own agricultural revolution built on technology and innovation, and facilitated by a conducive policy environment aligned with the needs of African farmers.

Developing countries stand to bear the brunt of climate change, while being the least resilient to extreme or erratic weather patterns, such as floods, droughts, salinity exposure and unpredictable rainfall.

Many African farmers rely solely on traditional knowledge when making planting and harvesting decisions. And all but four percent of African farmers rely on rainfall to feed their crops. Only one in 20 African farmers uses fertilisers on her fields (and even fewer use herbicides to fight invasive weeds).

When farmers do use chemical fertilisers, they apply an average of less than 10 kilogrammes per hectare, a fraction of the 100 kilogrammes per hectare used by their counterparts in Asia and much less than the 50 kilogrammes per hectare called for by African leaders in the Abuja declaration in 2006.

It is not coincidence that 265 million people in sub-Saharan Africa still suffer from chronic hunger.

Many technologies already exist that could help farmers adopt more sustainable agricultural practices and increase the yields of their crops, but these are sitting unused on shelves. These need to be disseminated to those who need them most, namely smallholder farmers across Africa's many agro-ecological zones.

We are also increasingly able to quantify the impacts of climate change and deploy the solutions needed to make agricultural production less carbon intensive, such as satellite technology that can gauge soil moisture levels and agronomic techniques such as no-till agriculture that lock carbon in the soil.

Technology transfer needs to be accompanied by an increase in climate change research to help forecast future vulnerabilities and identify the most effective adaptation and mitigation strategies in response.

African agricultural research programmes are beginning to blossom, as illustrated in a new map of 300 such programmes launched at last month's Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa science week in Burkina Faso.

Increasing the collaboration between public and private sector organisations can also help build infrastructure, secure better access to natural resources, improve the distribution of agricultural inputs and services, and share best practices. The Farming First coalition is a successful example of farmers, scientists, engineers, industry and agricultural development organisations coming together to push for improved agricultural policies which benefit farmers while safeguarding natural resources over the long term.

For instance, FANRPAN is currently working in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation to improve food security throughout sub-Saharan Africa by promoting the understanding of climate change science and its integration into policy development and research agendas.

FANRPAN is also working with the International Food Policy Research Institute to help inform agricultural policymakers on the most effective policies for helping Africa's rural poor adapt to global climate change.

This project, called 'Strategies for Adapting to Climate Change in Rural sub-Saharan Africa: Targeting the Most Vulnerable', recognises the interrelated impact of climate change on household poverty, hunger and food security and takes into account different climate change scenarios to project the impact on crop and livestock production systems, also considering constraints to adaptation, including household well-being and related costs.

A safe, sufficient supply of healthy, diverse food is fundamental to achieving the first Millennium Development Goal - to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger - but is also key to boost progress toward the seven other Millennium Development Goals, from tackling child and maternal malnutrition and providing nutritious food to support HIV and AIDS sufferers, to ensuring children are healthy enough to take part in education.

Climate change poses a serious challenge but the recommendations proposed in Farming First's climate plan present a call to action for the world's leaders to embrace the power of agriculture as a poverty reduction tool while equipping farmers against the threat of climate change to their livelihoods.