Africa's food security is less threatened than many fear

Food security is a concern in Africa, but Africans are better able to adapt their agricultural methods to the threat than many are acknowledging.

By , Correspondent

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    Ethiopian farmers Mandefro Tesfaye (L) and Maru Sisay walk in their wheat field in Abay, north of Addis Ababa, October 21, 2009. For centuries, farmers like Berhanu Gudina have eked out a living in Ethiopia's central lowlands, tending tiny plots of maize, wheat or barley amid the vastness of the lush green plains.
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There’s confusion in the international response to the challenge of climate change to Africa – and there’s no sign of a remedy.

One major problem is that climate modelers are struggling to better grasp the possible effects on African agriculture of climate shifts. Exaggerated claims have been made – about catastropic declines in food production – and have been followed by serious critiques of the methods employed in the reckoning. The old specter of Afro-pessimism – that Africans are doomed, not matter what, destined to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time – seems to inform the mindset of those in international community who are quickest to cry that climate change inevitably will grievously harm Africa.

To be sure, climate change complicates an already complex dyanmic in sub-Saharan Africa between land, people and resources. Yet friends of Africa around the world make matters no easier by paying insufficient attention to the potential adaptations that Africans on the ground can make in response to new climate patterns. Some of these adaptations are occuring for other reasons. For instance, the shift in population from country to city is accelerating. No one knows how increased urbanization will alter the effects of climate change, but the movement of people from rural areas to cities is having the effect of improving the relative quality of those farmers who remain, for the logical reason that the most successful farmers are staying put, and even gaining control of more land and thus improving their farm productivity through brute-force scale effects. The growing quality of African farmers, who have been profiting, if unevenly, from rising commodity prices, also should mean that rural Africans possess a growing capacity to make useful adaptations to climate change. One excellent example lies in water usage. Irrigation is virtually absent from the African farm landscape. Even ground water is rarely used to feed plants. Yet starting to shift away from rain-fed farming can be done relatively inexpensively in most parts of Africa simply because the “low hanging fruit” has yet to be picked. Untold thousands of easy irrigation projects can be launched in Africa, quickly and at little cost, taking advantage of the reality that the first gains will be the easiest. In this regard, I am reminded of one of my visits to a UN Millenium district – this one in Malawi, where I witnessed farmers spooning water onto rows of vegetable plants from small plastic pails. The water was hand-carried from a nearby well. While this manner of irrigation is time-consuming and tiring, the benefits are clear: no capital equipment, relatively effecient use of water and immediate improvements in farm output.

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Of course, Africans must take the lead in adapting to climate change in their own region. But the situation is neither as hopeless nor impossible. Many of the most important adaptations by farmers to climate change should be made any way; the benefits to farm productivity – of better use of land and water, of seeds and other inputs — are clear, whether the climate is changing or not. Similarly, for African city dwellers, many improved ways of living – from transport to sanitation, from water to power consumption — are beneficial in themselves, irregardless of climate threats.

Tactically, the lessons that can be drawn from this analysis seem indisputable. Encourage Africans who are doing the right things to keep doing them. Put international money into “adaptation” funds. Conduct Africa-specific studies of the trajectory of climate change in the region but do so carefully, recognizing that more science, at least in the near term, will only produce more uncertainty. And finally, avoid apocalyptic predictions.

G. Pascal Zachary blogs at Africa Works.

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