17 September 2013

Africa: Climate Change Needs New Farming Plans


A majority of Kenyans are farmers who depend on rain to grow their crops and for feed for their livestock. But millions farm will tell you that something in the skies is changing, and it's changing to the extreme.

In some areas of the country, excessive rains have caused ruinous landslides and flooding. In others, the rains are either too little or come too late and crops wither in the fields. But for everyone, the result is the same: more poverty and hunger.

Concern is growing in Kenya that these extremes are just the beginning of the consequences of climate change.

In fact, there is considerable evidence that right now, and in the foreseeable future, the build-up of greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere will progressively alter conditions for cultivating life-sustaining food crops like maize and wheat, and for raising cattle and other livestock.

The government has seen the signs and responded accordingly. In 2012, it developed the Kenya Climate Change Action Plan.

But what is still missing is a detailed strategy for keeping food production vibrant as the effects of climate change sweep across the country.

This week, policymakers are convening in Naivasha for a National Adaptation Planning conference, a meeting organised by the agriculture and environment ministries and the CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

This is Kenya's chance to start developing a more definitive climate change adaptation plan for the agricultural sector.

A new book, East African Agriculture and Climate Change, will help frame the discussion. Produced by the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa with support from CCAFS, it includes a chapter focused solely on what might happen to farming in Kenya.

Scientists developed four different scenarios, or climate models, each revealing different outcomes for food production between now and 2050.

One shows areas of the Rift Valley and the Coastal becoming too hot or too dry to support maize cultivation. Another model indicates maize yields increasing in all areas where it is currently grown.

But what is most interesting is that all the models show that farmers will likely be able to grow maize in a few parts of Kenya that in the past have been too dry or too cool to support the crop.

They also indicate that in the near future, wheat yields will fall in fields cultivated on the slopes of Mt Kenya and Mt Elgon, but increase in areas near Nakuru.

The researchers predict that based on the current rate of technological progress in farm production, the overall trend in Kenya over the next few decades should be one of rising food production and decreasing malnutrition. And depending on how climate change plays out, the range of outcomes could be significant.

Maize production could rise by 60 per cent, or even as much as 100 per cent. The number of malnourished children could fall by as much as 90 per cent, or as little as 30 per cent.

The key message for decision-makers is that while there is still uncertainty in the forecast, a picture is starting to emerge for Kenya's future farming conditions and policies that will leave the country better prepared for any of these scenarios.

We can be ready to take advantage of better growing conditions for maize or, conversely, to help farmers switch to other types of food crops if the climate becomes less maize-friendly.

We can also develop new maize varieties that are more resilient to heat and drought, as well as those with higher yield-potential if conditions improve.

We can examine the regions that might become more conducive to maize production and consider whether, due to environmental concerns, we should protect some areas and selectively develop others.

And we can invest in the research that can generate innovations, like drought or heat-tolerant crop varieties, and the agricultural advisory services critical to ensuring farmers are able to make use of these crops.

As global talks aimed at slowing the pace of climate change appear to be deadlocked, it is time Kenyans became the masters of their own fate and took advantage of the opportunity to develop a comprehensive climate change adaptation plan for agriculture.

This plan must be based on a sound vision for climate-smart agriculture, be responsive to Kenya Vision 2030 and put the country on a low carbon growth across agriculture and other sectors.

We may not be able to control what happens in the heavens, but we can influence what happens in the earth that our farmers have so successfully nurtured for centuries.

Dr Kinyangi is the Regional Program Leader for CCAFS East Africa; Mr Thomas is a senior researcher at the International Food and Policy Institute; Dr Waithaka is the manager for Policy Analysis and Advocacy Programme of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa.

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