Falesse waters crops at a farm in Sofala Province, Mozambique. Nine of sub-Saharan Africa's staple crops will require “transformational change” before the end of this century. What does that mean for farmers and the organizations that support them? Photo by: Marcos Villalta / Save the Children / CC BY-NC-ND

If you are a bean farmer in Angola, pay attention.

Evidence is mounting that some of the developing world’s staple crops will require significant adaptation investments, either to help them survive climate change or to find suitable replacements as their current growing areas become unviable.

A new research paper in Nature Climate Change reviews nine staple crops in sub-Saharan Africa and projects that all of them will require some degree of “transformational change” by the end of this century. The study suggests that agriculture policymakers and development planners should put in place policies and investments now that can help farmers usher in changes in areas most likely to require transformation.

Of the nine crops analyzed, researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture found that maize, bananas and beans face the greatest pressure to adapt. Sub-Saharan Africa’s bean crops, according to the study, could see 60 percent of their current growing area require transformational change by 2100. This means that more than half of the areas where beans currently grow in the region could become unsuitable for bean cultivation in the next 85 years.

The largest contiguous area of projected change is a 350 million hectare swathe of land that stretches from Angola into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to the study.

For maize and bananas the transformational change projection is greater than 30 percent of the region’s current growing area. The study also examines cassava, finger millet, groundnut, pearl millet, sorghum and yam. For most of this produce, transformation is limited to “small pockets,” less than 15 percent of current growing area.

Farmers working in areas projected to require transformation have two long-term options, according to the study: switching to an alternative cropping system, or transforming out of crop-based livelihoods altogether.

The researchers maintain the findings do not portend the inevitable collapse of African agriculture. There are, in fact, many steps that can be taken to adapt current practices to future conditions, according to Julian Ramirez-Villegas, research fellow at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and lead author of the report.

“In most of these cases there are viable substitute crops, and actually in the majority of cases there is more than one,” Ramirez-Villegas said.

Maize in sub-Saharan Africa is itself a substitute for indigenous crop varieties, and Ramirez-Villegas suggested that if significant maize growing areas become unviable, the best course could be to return to traditional African cereal crops including millets and sorghum, for which the study projected greater stability for the rest of this century.

So with the requirement of transformational change looming on the horizon — or, in some cases, already very real — what is to be done?

The report’s authors suggest crop adaptation could proceed in three stages: “an incremental adaptation phase focused on improvements to crops and management, a preparatory phase that establishes appropriate policies and enabling environments, and a transformational adaptation phase in which farmers substitute crops, explore alternative livelihoods strategies, or relocate.”

In addition to these — and in support of them — the paper stresses that monitoring capacity will need to be enhanced to ensure observed changes in crop viability correspond to necessary investments or transformations.

“We should have a more comprehensive system that gathers information on a broader set of indicators,” Ramirez-Villegas said.

Something as simple as the level of crop “greenness” could be one such indicator, according to the researcher. An observed shift on a spectrum from green to brown could indicate that something in a crop’s biophysics is going wrong. Ramirez-Villegas and his team are currently exploring the use of drones to monitor pasture degradation — and they are waiting for a grant to combine crop simulation models with real-time farmer surveys to monitor the current El Nino and its eventual transition back to La Nina, the warm and cool phases of a recurring climate pattern across the tropical Pacific.

While the study reinforces that climate change will likely disrupt food and agriculture systems in sub-Saharan Africa, it also alludes to a more hopeful conclusion. Farmers and governments that prioritize data-driven adaptation will likely find that viable options exist; and particularly in the wake of the Paris climate agreement, many governments are prioritizing this kind of action.

“With any impact there comes the opportunity of adaptation,” Ramirez-Villegas said, adding that farmers could see opportunities to expand cassava cultivation toward the subtropics.

But the existence of a viable alternative crop does not guarantee its uptake — by farmers or consumers. Knowledge, training, tastes and norms are complicated to assess and adjust. Not everyone agrees what the good transformational change looks like. For example, in some countries the adoption rate for drought-tolerant maize is only 10 to 20 percent, Ramirez-Villegas said. In some cases, the barriers to adaptation are more complicated than the adaptive measures themselves.

What do you think “transformative change” looks like for Africa’s food and agriculture systems, and what will it take to achieve? Share your ideas in the comments section below.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.