AFRICA: What will we eat in the future?

JOHANNESBURG, 17 June 2009 (IRIN) – It will take at least ten years to develop a variety of staple grain that will survive in the climates caused by global warming in most parts of Africa, and the continent has less than two decades in which to do it, warn the authors of a new study.

"The countries have to start developing varieties now, but many of these countries don’t have breeding programmes," said Luigi Guarino, one of three authors of a study to be published on 19 June in the US journal, Global Environmental Change. "This study, we hope, at least raises the flag."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international scientific body, has predicted that food production in Africa could halve by 2020 as global warming pushes temperatures up and droughts become more intense.

The new study by researchers at Stanford University’s Program on Food Security and the Environment, in the US, and the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust, noted that "For a majority of Africa’s farmers, warming will rapidly take climate not only beyond the range of their personal experience, but also beyond the experience of farmers within their own country."

Guarino, a Senior Science Coordinator at the Global Crop diversity Trust, pointed out that many farmers could find staple crop varieties in other African countries, where current temperatures and conditions were similar to what they might experience in future.

"For example, farmers in Lesotho [with one of the coolest climates in Africa] could find maize varieties grown in parts of Mali [one of the hottest countries in Africa] now, which would be tolerant to the very high temperatures they would face in another 20 years."

Six countries in the Sahel – Senegal, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Sierra Leone, the hottest in Africa – are of major concern to the researchers, as they will face conditions unlike any currently encountered by farmers in the continent.

"Of course, parts of these countries will never be able to grow maize [which is more heat sensitive]," he said, and would have to settle for the "drought-tolerant maize, which is sorghum". Many parts of Africa would no longer be able to grow anything.

Guarino said it was possible to develop crop varieties in simulated conditions, based on projections for the Sahel belt, but very few traditional primary cereal crops – African varieties of maize, millet and sorghum – selected by farmers over the centuries for their unique suitability to local growing conditions were available in genebanks.

The researchers found that ten African countries, including Sudan, Nigeria, Cameroon and Mozambique, had current growing conditions very similar to those many other countries would soon face, but few of the crop varieties cultivated in the countries were found in major genebanks.

In an earlier study, the Stanford University researchers projected that maize production, southern Africa’s staple food, could drop by as much as 30 percent in another two decades.

Cary Fowler, head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, said climate change called for closer collaboration, sharing of resources and more investment.

The researchers’ call to help African countries came during the global debate over a legally binding funding mechanism to help poor countries adapt to climate change at the recent talks in Bonn, Germany.

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