Food security deadline set for Africa

As looming climate change threatens sub-Saharan Africa, a new study sets out battle plan to avoid food shortages.

10th March 2016
Food security deadline set for Africa (iStock)

For the 30% of people living in sub-Saharan Africa who are undernourished, climate change is expected to make matters significantly worse. But a new study, published in Nature Climate Change, aims to prevent future environmental impacts from devastating the food supply chain in developing nations by providing both a time-scale and a framework for improved food security, the first of its kind to do so.

The study shines a light on food safety concerns facing sub-Saharan African nations that could occur directly as a result of climate change, potentially affecting half of their food sources.

Testing temperature rises of 2 and 4°C by the year 2100, researchers predicted what effect this would have on different food producing region, and then created a time-scale with suggested strategies to bypass a food security crisis.  

The significant adjustments in the way food is produced in these regions are referred to as ‘transformational adaptations’. Adaptations, such as switching to a completely different crop, might have to take place within the next 20-50 years if they are to be successful, leaving at-risk nations little time to implement the necessary changes.

Countries who rely on maize like as Botswana, beans, such as Zimbabwe and bananas, which would mainly affect large areas of West Africa, face the greatest threat from climate change making them unsuitable for growing their staple food source. In the case of bean-yielding regions, up to 60% of the land may be unsuitable for growing the crop by the end of the century.

“In this study we were trying to focus more on actionable messages by trying to put dates on things,” says co-author Dr Sonja Vermeulen. “What surprised us was just how early some of these dates were, and the impact that such a seemingly small change has on a local population. For example, a 1% decrease in maize in South Africa means that people lose out on 2 million tonnes of maize, of which they are very dependent on.”

While the timeline states that some actions needs to be implemented now so that farmers can begin breeding crops better at withstanding heat for example, Dr Vermeulen feels the urgency portrayed in the paper is at risk of being ignored. 

“There are two things working against us - short political cycles, which result in empty promises, and the money necessary to make the changes doesn't materialise’.

Despite this she remains optimistic: “What is working in our favour is that people are really taking food security seriously. Furthermore, small changes such as improved weather forecasts, which reach 7 million rural people via SMS and radio broadcasts, make a big difference.”

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