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Time Is Running Out to Battle Climate Change for Africa's Food Supply

A study has taken the unusual route of producing a timeline of how and when climate change will adversely affect Africa’s ability to produce food.

by Alex Swerdloff
Mar 10 2016, 6:00pm

Photo via Flickr user European Commission DG ECHO

Sub-Saharan Africa may indeed be facing an increasingly insecure food chain thanks to the likes of El Niño, but it looks like Africa's agriculture industry—which has often been used as a poster child by GMO proponents—is only in for more climate change trouble in the coming years.

A study recently published in Nature Climate Change has taken the unusual route of producing a timeline of how and when climate change will adversely affect Africa's ability to produce food. Not only do the researchers detail the changes necessary to avoid massive agricultural disaster, they actually provide a deadline when certain "transformations" would need to be put in place.

The study's authors state that climate change has had a profoundly destabilizing effect of agricultural production and that systemic changes, "will be required if food production is to be increased in both quantity and stability to meet food security needs during the 21st Century".

Nine of Sub-Saharan Africa's staple crops were examined and six of these nine crops were generally expected to be stable even given moderate to extreme climate change. Three of the crops, though—beans, maize, and bananas—"are more unstable and are therefore projected to have large amounts of area under transformational change," the study found.

Under a high warming scenario, bean farming would require significant remediation: "In the case of beans, in particular, we see about 60 percent of the area in need of transformation and adaption because the climate shifts away from the conditions where you can actually grow the crop." Up to 30 percent of areas growing maize and bananas are projected to become unviable by the end of the century. In some areas transformations will need to take place as early as 2025.

The researchers said that there is some hope in the development of "climate smart" crop varieties. In 2015, researchers created temperature-resilient beans, for example.

Julian Ramirez-Villegas from the University of Leeds, UK, a co-author of the study, told the BBC, "In the longer term, where transformation is unavoidable, you can shift crops. In most cases, we find that there are alternative crops that remain suitable for those places." Also, he says, "livestock might constitute an alternative livelihood option, or people might completely change their livelihood by migrating, for example, or by completely changing the land-use."

How about we just try to stop climate change?

Ramirez-Villegas is, perhaps, more of a pragmatist. He says, "We need to work on the barriers to the adoption of technologies, as we know that in Sub-Saharan Africa, adoption levels are sometimes low. What we also need to do is to put planned adaptation into national development plans."

It's a sad day when the world needs to plan for the demise of beans, maize, and bananas in Africa. But it seems that day has come.