Download Now! Actions to Transform Food Systems under Climate Change

Without healthy farms, Africa's forecast is hunger

Farming is the life blood of more than half a billion people on the African continent, and climate change will have significant impacts on African agriculture. Photo: P. Casier (CCAFS)
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By Bruce Campbell

A wise man once said, a hungry man is an angry man. The same goes for the farmer who cannot feed herself.
If African countries don’t want to see this proverb become reality, they must honour their commitments to invest more in the future of agriculture - to make farms more productive and sustainable, and protect farmers from the risks of climate change and extreme weather.
Farming is the life blood of more than half a billion people on the African continent, and climate change will have significant impacts on African agriculture. Rising temperatures and an increase in droughts and floods could dramatically alter growing seasons and wreak havoc on harvests.

The rate of crop failure - already one-in-four in much of eastern Africa - will increase in all areas except Central Africa, according to research by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR). Because of climate change, rain-fed crops could fail every other year in much of southern Africa.
In the past, African farmers have shown a remarkable capacity to adapt to changes in climate. But the temperature increases of four degrees or more predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) could push millions of farmers beyond their ability to adapt. And it is unlikely that negotiations at the global climate talks opening in Durban on Nov. 28 will produce an agreement to limit global warming to two degrees or lower.
As such, Africans must realise that we cannot expect the world to create a climate solution for us. We must embark on our own path towards climate security. And that starts with ensuring our own food security. Many options are already available that could help farmers adapt to warming, but they require us to build our institutions and the infrastructure that can improve our crops and protect our farmers.
Farm transformation programs in countries like Rwanda, Nigeria, Tanzania and Malawi, which are boosting yields that were once some of the lowest in the world, are the first line of defence for African farmers in the fight against climate change.


While a drought-induced food crisis affects millions in the Horn of Africa, there are some rays of hope in that region. Innovative crop and livestock insurance programmes have begun issuing payouts to farmers who purchased micro-insurance to protect their livestock and crops against drought.

These programmes use solar-powered weather stations and satellite data to monitor conditions and issue payouts automatically when crops and grazing lands have deteriorated beyond a certain point. These climate-risk insurance schemes are an example of market-based innovations that could gain much wider currency in Africa.
In southern Africa, hundreds of thousands of farmers are practising conservation agriculture that will help them adapt to climate change. Since the approach involves reduced or no tillage, farmers are able to keep more moisture, fertility and organic content in the soil. This climate-smart approach also lowers greenhouse gas emissions through reduced use of machinery and chemical fertilisers and by storing more carbon in the soil.
In the Sahel, scientists have become increasingly adept at predicting conditions such as higher-than-average temperatures or prolonged drought during a growing season. But African governments need to improve agricultural extension services so that forecasts and other valuable, timely information reach farmers in time to help them make better decisions in the field. In Zimbabwe, for example, a study found that crop yields increased by 19 percent for farmers who used seasonal forecasts to guide growing decisions.  
A recent survey by the CGIAR research programme for Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) found that climate variability and unpredictability - such as earlier rains, less overall rainfall and more frequent drought and flooding - had led 80 percent of the households in one region of Kenya to report changes in their farming practices.  Farmers are eager for solutions, and are willing and able to put them to work.
African governments, the donor community and other development partners need to support farmers as they endeavour to boost their own resilience in the face of the growing climate threat.

Investments in productivity should be complemented with approaches that reduce climate risk, cut emissions from farming and deforestation, and increase farmers’ access to climate information. Without healthy farms, the forecast is for hunger, and that is gloomy news indeed.

Bruce Campbell is the director of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS). He was born in South Africa, worked for 20 years in Zimbabwe, and is now based in Copenhagen.

This story was also published on Reuters AlertNet, AllAfrica, Business Day (South Africa), and the Daily Monitor (Uganda).