Climate change set to wreck African bean farming

Grandma picking pulses
Copyright: Flickr/P. Casier/CGIAR

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  • About 60 per cent of Sub-Saharan African bean production could be lost
  • Millet, sorghum, cassava and yams more tolerant of climate change
  • Policymakers should do more to encourage efforts to adapt local farming

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Climate change could wipe out 60 per cent of bean production in Sub-Saharan Africa, and decimate banana and maize crops in the region, a study warns.
A paper published yesterday in Nature Climate Change urges policymakers to step up efforts to adapt local farming and limit the effects of higher temperatures and rainfall on food production. The paper found that various parts of Sub-Saharan Africa could become unsuitable for some staple crops by 2100.

“In many African countries, you can get a huge improvement in crop performance and yield by fairly simple ways of managing soil, water and fertilisation.”

Camilla Toulmin, International Institute for Environment and Development


“Beans are a very important source of protein in East Africa and are very sensitive to rises in temperature,” says co-author Julian Ramirez-Villegas, a climate change researcher at CGIAR, an international agricultural research partnership. He adds that changes in farming habits take time, so policymakers should start implementing them as soon as possible.
The study found that more than half of all bean-growing areas and up to 30 per cent of maize and banana fields could become unsuitable for these crops near the end of the century.
Ramirez-Villegas says local farmers should shift to new species of beans developed to thrive in dry weather, but obstacles remain to adaptation, including the high price and limited availability of some seeds.
“For example, studies from the CGIAR on drought-tolerant maize show that the adoption rates in Southern and Eastern Africa are in the range of 10 to 60 per cent,” he says.
The study found that farmers growing millet, sorghum, cassava, groundnut and yams are likely to be able to continue to do so this century, as these crops are more tolerant of climate change.
But certain areas, such as the southern Sahel, will become too risky for many kinds of crops, with the researchers suggesting that farmers there might be better off shifting to livestock production.
“This type of projection is very important to allow farmers to make changes in advance, especially in areas with low technology access and capacity building,” including some areas in Brazil, says Giampaolo Queiroz Pellegrino, a researcher at Embrapa Agriculture Informatics, a research unit within the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. “For example, the development of crops adapted for high temperatures and drought takes an average of ten years.”

Camilla Toulmin, an economist who researches climate change at the International Institute for Environment and Development, says governments should take the lead in guiding adaptation efforts so they take into account local conditions.
“Scientists need to work in a dialogue with smallholder farmers,” she says. “In many African countries, you can get a huge improvement in crop performance and yield by fairly simple ways of managing soil, water and fertilisation.”


Ulrike Rippke and others Timescales of transformational climate change adaptation in Sub-Saharan African agriculture (Nature Climate Change, 7 March 2016)