Ensuring Food Production in a Changing Climate

By Katharine Vincent, Kulima Integrated Development Solutions

With COP17-CM7 underway in Durban, agriculture has a high place on the agenda.  The world’s population has just passed 7 billion people, and is due to reach 8 billion in 14 years’ time. As if the challenge of population growth is not enough, agriculture is having to adapt to a changing climate.  Farmers have long been noticing the changes, and are attempting to respond accordingly.  But they are often impeded by barriers that could be removed by effective policy and political commitment.  Southern Africa is one region where climate change is projected to have substantial consequences for agriculture.

Variations in climate conditions are nothing new for farmers in southern Africa.  The region has long been characterised by variations in temperature and rainfall from year to year (and often within years), punctuated by climate extremes, such as floods and droughts.  But recent research by Oxfam and Kulima Integrated Development Solutions with over 200 farmers in southern Africa highlights how recent observed changes are different in magnitude to what they experienced in the past.

Farmers have widely kept observations of increased temperatures and greater rainfall variability, which are consistent with meteorological records, and in-keeping with what is expected under climate change.  Hotter conditions year round and changes in the rainy season, such as the rains starting later and finishing earlier, as well as rain falling in more intense bursts, have implications for the growing season and increase the risks of poor yields or crop failure.  This affects subsistence farmers and commercial farmers, as well as farm labourers, whose employment is often indirectly dependent upon weather conditions.

Given the long history of variability in climate, all farmers have become resourceful and enterprising, employing various strategies to obtain optimal yields.  These strategies include changing planting dates, planting in new locations, intercropping (planting two crops in the same field), dry planting and diversifying crop choices (including using early maturing seeds and modern hybrids).  Diversifying livelihood bases by engaging in nonagricultural activities is also important.

Some of these strategies can be classified as coping – meaning that they enable farmers to maintain a living in the face of adverse conditions, but do not actually reduce their vulnerability should the same conditions occur in the future.  Others can be classified as adaptation – meaning that they (at worst) enable farmers to maintain a living, and at best allow them to improve their livelihoods (production levels and income).  The key difference between coping and adaptation is that the latter simultaneously reduces future vulnerability.In some cases, coping responses can actually increase a farmer’s vulnerability to future climate change – meaning that such strategies can be termed maladaptation.  In Zimbabwe, for example, farmers in Masvingo and Midlands provinces reported planting very close to the river and/or in wetland areas.  This strategy is in response to the decline in rainfall, and is an attempt to maintain production levels.  But these areas, by definition, are exposed to flooding (particularly since flash flooding is on the increase, given the increase in high intensity rainfall events).  Planting in these areas is a coping response to less rainfall and drought, but increases exposure (and the risk of crop loss) from flooding.

Various barriers to adaptation exist, which often means that coping strategies and maladaptations arise.  Financial barriers are particularly important for small-scale farmers.  Low income levels mean that they can rarely afford new technologies, such as hybrid seed, fertilisers and irrigation equipment.  At the same time, lack of assets to use as collateral impedes their ability to take out loans.  But the barriers are not merely financial; lack of technical knowledge and access to information often impedes their ability to make adaptive decisions.  Small-scale farmers typically have low education levels, and are increasingly cut off from the declining availability of agricultural extension services.

The ability of farmers to adapt to climate change is also impeded by the fact that climate is not the only stressor on their livelihoods.  Southern Africa has a disproportionately high prevalence of HIV and AIDS, which impedes the physical capacity of many people to engage in farming, as well as placing additional burdens of care on other family members.  Markets affect farmers, particularly since national economies are increasingly embedded within the global economic system.  In Malawi, for example, tea production is taking over from tobacco as the main cash crop, but is still subject to low and fluctuating prices.  Government policy also plays a role: Malawi and Zambia have typically had subsidy programmes to support small-scale farmers, and post-war Mozambique is now placing increasing emphasis on small-scale farmers.  In Zimbabwe, on the other hand, farmers have variously been affected by the government policy, which prioritised large-scale commercial farmers during colonial times, small-scale farmers in the post-independence period, and is now based on the country’s controversial land redistribution.Overcoming these barriers is essential to promote adaptation to climate change, and ensure food production within the context of a changing climate, both for farmers themselves, and for those of us who procure our food through the market.  Fortunately a number of organisations are working to promote “climate-smart agriculture”, defined as farming which brings about a triple win: improved productivity, whilst supporting adaptation, through resilience in the face of changing conditions; and mitigation, with practices that reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions.  The same organisations have also been using the UNFCCC negotiations as a chance to lobby at the highest level.

Agriculture has been high on the agenda at the current COP17-CMP7 negotiations in Durban.  The annual Agriculture and Rural Development Day was attended by high level delegates, including South Africa’s Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, and Professor Sir John Beddington, Chair of the Commission of Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change.  An open letter to the COP negotiators from the organisations involved in the Agriculture and Rural Development Day asked them to approve a Work Programme for agriculture under the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) so that the sector can take early action to determine the long-term investments needed to transform agriculture to meet future challenges.  Farmers are acting now and politicians need to follow suit.  As Professor Sir John Beddington says, “we have to go from talking about change, to fighting for it”.