How Africa can feed itself in the face of climate change

With climate change exacerbating the food insecurity crisis, the solutions to feeding Africa lie with itself.

Ecosystem-based systems help farmers adapt to climate change and tackle issues like resource scarcity and ecological degradation [AFP]

With the global population approaching 9.6 billion by 2050, huge demands will be placed on states and the environment to provide sufficient food.

Already, leaders are searching for solutions to a series of global challenges unprecedented in scale and complexity. Food insecurity, malnutrition, climate change, rural poverty and environmental degradation are at  the top of the list.

Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change threats because both supply-side and demand-side challenges are putting additional pressure on an already fragile food production system. Current systems of production will only be able to meet 13 percent of the continent’s food needs by 2050, while three out of every four people added to the planet between now and 2100 will be born in the region. In the coming half century, the land we grow our food on will change.

This will make feeding the world’s growing population a complicated task. Higher temperatures could cause total farm yields to drop by 15-20 percent across all African regions. All at once, the 65 percent of the African work force who directly depend on agriculture as their life blood will become the most threatened by climate change and affected food patterns. These stark statistics present a resounding reminder of where the continent is headed, and if nothing is done millions of people in Africa will be pushed back into food insecure situations potentially fueling food riots as was the case in 2007-2008, when prices of maize and soybean peaked fuelling food riots in more than 30 countries.

Avoiding the unavoidable

The chief science adviser to the British government, John Beddington, has cautioned that by 2030 the combining trends of climate change, population increase, and resource scarcity could present “major destabilisation”, including street riots and mass migrations as people flee food and water shortages. But this terrible prediction is not without a solution. Indeed, across Africa, the solutions for feeding a post climate-change world are already taking hold. To succeed in feeding the planet the solution must use a robust, two-fold strategy.

Let’s not squander the opportunity to “avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable” effects of climate change. This is the only way that Africa will be able to achieve the envisaged food secured society in which its population does not experience the fear of want.

First, future agricultural practices must drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases they emit to prevent further devastation, and second, they must build resilience against climate change impacts already made inevitable by previous human-environment interaction.

Old versus new

The prevalent system of industrial agriculture misses the mark on both targets. The sooner we fix the global approach to agriculture, the better. Current practices emit enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, because they utilise oil-powered machinery, massive quantities of manufactured fertilisers, and shipping food across the globe.

Additionally, the system’s preference for monoculture rather than crop diversification makes food supplies incredibly vulnerable to the effects of hot, dry weather. The chemicals it uses disrupt and discourage natural soil processes and even add to global climate change.

The planet needs an approach that improves the local environment. In this context, building resilient and highly productive food systems in agriculture-dominated landscapes is imperative. Achieving food security in the context of Africa is unimaginable without climate change adaptation and practices that not only support food production to meet people’s nutritional needs, but that also prevent soil erosion, conserve and provide clean water, recycle nutrients, and support the pollinators and biodiversity that underpin agricultural productivity. This calls for solutions based on ecological foundations and approaches.

The Ecosystem based Adaptation (EbA) approach, which makes use of ecosystem services to help people adapt to climate change can also help tackle issues such as resource scarcity and ecological degradation. The EbA approach eschews applying chemical fertilisers to soil; rather, it favours compost and manure, which increase the soil’s fertility and ability to retain water – key advantages against hot, dry weather

Ecosystem based approaches – the panacea?

In fact, many of the ecological based practices and technologies we need are already in use in the African continent and elsewhere. What’s needed is to bring these isolated success stories to scale, to make them the rule rather than the exception. In Mozambique, for example, an investment of $120 per person in ecosystem-based actions provided continuous food security for 490 people, in addition to rehabilitating mangroves and reducing overfishing through the construction of crab cages and fish ponds to supplement catches.

With relatively little inputs, ecosystem-based adaptation can increase yields and profits, while climate-proofing local ecosystems and improving community well-being. For the world to succeed in feeding its future population, this relatively new approach must become better understood and more frequently utilised by communities and policymakers.

At the global level, the answer to whether ecological approaches can provide results in a world where it is getting more difficult to grow food is still “Yes”. The Rodale Institute completed a 30 year study spanning the United States and Europe. The study found that after 3-5 years the crop yields of ecological agriculture matched yields of industrial agriculture. EbA is justifiably the optimal approach that Africa (and indeed the developed world) can use to combat climate change thus far. EbA can replenish ravaged systems, increase soil fertility, improve ground water supply, and produce less CO2 all the while encouraging more biodiversity and generating greater food production.

However, as successful as such initiatives may be, their scale is limited. Sizable increases in capital are needed to expand the reach of such EbA projects. Development groups should thus invest their dollars, euros, yens, etc., in upscaling what has already worked as illustrated by the examples. This will not only be a good value for money but will enhance sustainable long-term food security.

Rising food prices do not have to mean greater food insecurity in Africa under the changing climate. Communities across the continent are already building resilience to climate change by stimulating their existing ecosystems. Let’s not squander the opportunity to “avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable” effects of climate change. This is the only way that Africa will be able to achieve the envisaged food-secure society in which its population does not experience the fear of want.

Dr Richard Munang is UNEP’s Africa Regional Climate Change Head & Co-ordinator.  Jesica Andrews an intern with UNEP’s Climate Change Programme in Africa, contributed to this article.

Follow Richard Munang on Twitter@MTingem.