Farming changes needed to avert looming food crisis

Hopeful: A farmer inspects the soil ahead of planting at a maize field in Wesselbron in the Free State in January. The continuing drought has severely affected this year's crops. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

Hopeful: A farmer inspects the soil ahead of planting at a maize field in Wesselbron in the Free State in January. The continuing drought has severely affected this year's crops. (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warns in its 2016 report on The State of Food and Agriculture that “unless action is taken now to make agriculture more sustainable, productive and resilient, climate change impacts will seriously compromise food production in regions that are already highly food-insecure… Without adaptation to climate change, it will not be possible to achieve food security for all and eradicate hunger, malnutrition and poverty.”

Across Africa, climate change presents an enormous threat to food producers already too sensitive to any change in weather patterns, and along with them, hundreds of millions of people dependent on their food crops. The FAO report states: “Productivity declines would have serious implications for food security. Food supply shortfalls would lead to major increases in food prices, while increased climate variability would accentuate price volatility. Since the areas most affected would be those with already high rates of hunger and poverty, food price increases would directly affect millions of low-income people. Among the most vulnerable will be those who depend on agriculture for their livelihood and income, particularly smallholder producers in developing countries.”

Action must be taken now to avert global warming and a massive food crisis, say the experts. In the FAO report, José Graziano da Silva, FAO director-general, says, “Business as usual is not an option. Agriculture has always been the interface between natural resources and human activity. Today it holds the key to solving the two greatest challenges facing humanity: eradicating poverty, and maintaining the stable climatic corridor in which civilisation can thrive.”

In South Africa, the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) said recently that the impacts of the drought last year became quickly apparent in the cost of retail products, with the cost of super maize meal increasing 22% year on year in January 2016. Drought conditions also drive up the costs of meat and dairy products, with nutritional impacts for consumers, for whom bread, cereals and meat account for almost 50% of their food expenditure.

Change forces adaptation

Global warming and climate change are forcing change in agricultural strategies across Africa, say experts. Average temperatures are already higher across the continent, and greater extremes can be expected in weather patterns in years to come. Hot dry areas will likely become drier, humid areas more so, and rare events such as drought and floods may become more common.

While a La Niña phenomenon may bring unusually wet weather to South Africa this summer, breaking nearly two years of drought, other regions of the continent are experiencing unusual dry spells. Climate change is impacting the region in unexpected ways, and whether too much or too little rain falls, Africa’s farming practices must become less susceptible to weather extremes in order to support the food security of a population fast approaching the billion mark.

Lucky Ntsangwane, a research manager with the South African Weather Service, says Southern Africa is emerging from a harsh drought season and likely faces a prolonged recovery period. “Indications are currently that above normal rainfall and temperatures may be expected. Although this may sound like much-needed relief from this crippling drought; it should be noted that heavy rainfall is not necessarily a good thing for agriculture that is recovering from a drought, since overly heavy rainfall after a severe drought simply washes off the soil.” Greater extremes in weather patterns due to climate change and global warming will increasingly impact food security, he says.

Mark New, director and pro vice-chancellor for Climate Change at the African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) at the University of Cape Town, says, “Most of the dramatic impacts we see due to the weather across the region today are due to extreme events such as droughts and floods, which are largely natural occurrences. But what climate change is doing is shifting the background state of the climate, so that what would once have been an unusual event becomes much more common. Today’s extreme becomes tomorrow’s normal.”

With average temperatures over parts of Southern Africa warming by a degree and a half or two degrees over the last 100 years, the frequency of damaging events changes, he explains. “If they become too frequent it becomes harder to recover, especially for the subsistence farmer. They keep getting knocked back and find themselves caught in a whirlpool of poverty.”

Climate change will drive warming of two to three degrees over southern Africa over the next 50 years, he notes. “It will certainly get hotter, so crops that are temperature sensitive or already at the limit of their temperature thresholds will be increasingly susceptible to failure.”

New adds: “The critical thing we struggle to forecast accurately is how the variability will change — such as how phenomena like El Niño or La Niña might behave 50 years from now. Their frequency and intensity predictions are uncertain and could seriously impact agriculture and food security.”

He believes African agriculture needs to plan for multiple possibilities in light of this uncertainty. “It’s about developing a portfolio of risk management options. For example, we need to be trialling crops now that are more tolerant of higher temperatures and rainfall extremes, but these should also be crops that might be robust and resilient across a wide range of possibilities.”

However, New also says “there is a lot that can be done to improve food security today. For example, investment in improved farming practices, access to finance for small farmers, crop insurance, market access for farmers, are all ways that could reduce the vulnerability of production in our food system to climate risks.”

On the topic of what can be done, Ntsangwane notes “Within natural cycles, there have always been extremes, but the rate of change is accelerated due to climate change. African governments are speaking about their concept of adaptation, and it is important that we start considering different types of crops that can withstand these extreme conditions. Fortunately, the human species has always adapted well to change.”

Changing tack: back to barter

81-year-old John Ziki successfully farmed his eight-hectare plot in the Bikita district of Zimbabwe’s Masvingo Province for over 50 years. In good years, the land fed eight or more people at his homestead and provided income for school fees, clothing, equipment, food, medicine and other expenses. Ziki’s cotton, maize and sunflower plantations once provided amply for the family. But times have changed.

Zimbabwean small-scale farmer John Ziki. (Photo: Tsitsi Ziki)

In the past four years, the rains have been less frequent and the traditional crops failed. Ziki gave up on cotton completely, and reduced the amount of maize and sunflowers under cultivation, moving instead to sorghum, which he has found to be hardier and more resistant to heat, drought and pests. His family now produces traditional beer from the sorghum and sells it where possible. But because his neighbours are also battling to make ends meet, many cannot pay in cash. Ziki often barters beer for clothing, furniture, chickens, mealie meal or other goods. Hard cash is scarce and generally only available when relatives working in South Africa send dollars back home, or when the family sells a cow.

Ziki and his wife cultivate a small vegetable patch to feed the family, but due to the scarcity of water, they now have to prioritise the cattle over vegetables. Water, he explains, is a major concern. The dam in the communal paddock has dried up and the last available water is from the village borehole, which attracts queues of women and children by day. To water their cattle, farmers drive their herds from the communal paddocks to the borehole after 9pm and take turns giving their cattle water from bowls. The alternative, he says, is a five-hour walk to the nearest river, where the herders and their cattle are at risk of crocodile attacks.  — Tracy Burrows