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A conflict between climate adaptation and food security policies shows we must create the right conditions for change, says Blessings Chinsinga.

The adverse effects of climate change on the livelihoods of the rural poor can no longer be ignored. They are threatening to cause tremendous damage to agriculture, which is a critical source of income for most people around the world.

This alarming prospect has triggered a wide range of actions to manage the adverse effects of climate change. These actions are both short- and long-term — communities have to build the capacity to deal with the immediate effects of climate change, and must also adapt to rapidly changing livelihoods over the longer term.

But adaptation does not happen in a vacuum. The context in which policy changes take place matters a great deal and has an important role in shaping adaptation processes. And the right analytical tools can uncover opportunities to ensure that adaptation policy produces effective and sustainable outcomes.

In Malawi, the smooth implementation of crop diversification as an adaptive strategy is constrained by a conflict with food security — a conflict fuelled by the competing interests of key stakeholders.

Diverse views

Malawi's economy is largely based on agriculture, which provides nearly 40 per cent of the GDP. Maize is grown on up to 90 per cent of the country's cultivable land, and is an important part of the diet and the main source of livelihood.

Malawi has the highest per capita consumption of maize in the world. But climate change poses a huge threat to maize cultivation, and higher temperatures have already reduced global yields in some parts of Africa.

Crop diversification is one adaptation strategy promoted in the country, and I worked with colleagues from Chancellor College at the University of Malawi to explore the process of implementing this and to identify relevant policy 'spaces' — opportunities to shape adaptation policy depending on the pattern of relationships among key stakeholders.

The National Consultative Group (NCG), a creative tool formed as part of the project, provided a relaxed atmosphere for discussion among policymakers and entrepreneurs from civil society organisations, government departments, donor agencies and the media — groups that subscribe to widely different views about adaptation to climate change.

The aim was to build some consensus towards a shared vision about the nature of the problem, what needs to be done to deal with it, and the likely consequences of taking no action.

There was no dispute about the potential of crop diversification as an adaptation strategy. It was seen as a guarantee of food security and a way of boosting soil health and improving the nutritional status of farmers. For most donors, crop diversification is a crucial means of "improving the nutritional status of a society wedded to maize".

But competing interests and views about crop diversification in relation to food security made it difficult to turn the promise of crop diversification into reality.

The politics of maize

In Malawi, cereals and legumes other than maize are hard to find in seed markets, mainly because of the coinciding interests of the government, seed companies and donors.

Communities in Malawi equate food with maize. Farmers have said that "maize is food and if we do not grow it, we fear we will not have food".

This has entrenched the government's view that maize is the best means of achieving food security. Maize is so important that some scholars characterise Malawi's politics as the politics of maize.

As a result, while constantly making references to the ideals of crop diversification, the main preoccupation of the government is to achieve food security using high-yielding maize varieties.

Even a major fertiliser subsidy programme, introduced by the government in 2005, has failed to change the politics of food security, even though it was designed to promote crop diversification. The programme is dominated by maize.

The seed companies are interested in securing a ready market for their hybrid products, and donors are keen to promote a local seed supply driven by the private sector.

Diversification away from maize is held back even more by severe land and labour constraints, limited productivity and a lack of lucrative markets for alternatives to maize. It is estimated that 49 per cent of smallholder farmers own no more than a hectare of land.

Policy engagement and influence is therefore not merely a question of generating robust scientific evidence and making it available to policymakers. It is as much about new evidence as it is about creating the right conditions for policy change to encourage adaptation.

And to do that, we need analytical tools that help us understand the strategic partnerships, coalitions and alliances that facilitate or impede the use of scientific evidence in policymaking.

Blessings Chinsinga is associate professor at the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Malawi.