Food insecurity will likely lead to social unrest, as has been the case in the past. For example, between 2007 and 2008, riots took place in many countries when prices of staples peaked. In 2010, hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Mozambique after wheat prices went up by 25% due to a global wheat shortage. The increase in bread prices led to arson, violence, looting and even deaths.
The Africa Adaptation Gap Report by the UN Environment Programme, the UN organ responsible for promoting sustainable use of the environment, confirmed the World Bank’s recent findings that with warming of about 2 degrees C, all crop yields across sub-Saharan Africa will decrease by 10% by the 2050s; greater warming (which is more likely) will cause crop yields to decrease by up to 15% or 20%. Further bad news for African agriculture is that by the middle of this century, wheat production could decrease by 17%, maize production by 5%, sorghum production by 15% and millet production by 10%. Additionally, if climate warming exceeds 3 degrees C, all present-day cropping areas for maize, millet and sorghum will be unsuitable for those crops. In the coming years, water for agriculture will be stretched to a painful extent. In Africa, 95% of agriculture relies on rainfall for water, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The World Bank notes it is very likely that by 2020 the total availability of blue and green water (from rains and rivers) in all of Africa could decline by more than 10%.
Africa needs an approach that works with nature, not against it. The most pessimistic forecast about the impact of climate change suggests that Africa may lose 47% of agricultural revenue by 2100, while the most optimistic predicts a loss of only 6%. The latter scenario depends on the assumption that climate change adaptation practices and infrastructure are already in place. But the difference between 6% and 47% is huge.
There is a continuing argument as to whether the industrial agricultural revolution will solve some or all of Africa’s climate change problems. However, experts maintain that industrial agriculture currently accounts for one third of all greenhouse gas emissions—the very element most responsible for climate change. Additionally, they believe that the resources and infrastructure required to operate an industrial agricultural system in Africa are impractical for smallholder farmers. New machines also mean fewer hands, which may increase joblessness while reducing wages, affecting many who depend on agriculture. Because current practices cannot meet future demands, Africa must apply new and better approaches.
One of the options being advocated is the ecosystem-based adaptation,, which is to mitigate climate change impact through the use natural systems such as drought-resistant varieties, more efficient methods of water storage and more diversity in crop rotation, says UNEP. In Zambia, 61% of farmers who applied an ecosystem-based adaptation, such as natural resource conservation or sustainable organic agricultural practices, reported surplus yields. Some yields even increased by up to 60%, while sales of surplus crops grew from 25.9% to 69%. In Burkina Faso, farmers are using indigenous methods to rehabilitate land. By digging small pits (locally referred to as zaï) on barren plots and filling them with organic matter, some Burkinabe farmers are able to add nutrients to the soil while enhancing groundwater storage to improve crop productivity. These farmers have reclaimed 200,000 to 300,000 hectares of degraded lands and have produced an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 additional tonnes of cereal.
Other options include protecting watersheds and reinforcing their capacity to hold water and carry it to those who need it most; using integrated pest management, which is a natural and cost-effective way of protecting crops; using agroforestry, intercropping and crop rotation, which bring nutrient diversity to fields and ensure continued and improved production yields in a natural way; maintaining forests and using forest foods; using natural fertilizers like manure; and using natural pollinators like bees, which, according to a recent study, could increase fruit yields by 5%.
Building on such good practices, and properly managing the unavoidable effects of climate change, will unlock Africa’s potential to feed itself. The future need not be a future of want.