Feeding Africa: Australian knowledge helps meet a continent’s climate change challenges

Increasing population and climate change will make it even harder for the world to feed itself. Gates Foundation

The world’s population has just hit seven billion and nearly one billion people do not get enough to eat. Agricultural land is being degraded at the rate of 12 million hectares a year and the world faces a huge challenge in feeding this growing population - a challenge that will only be exacerbated by climate change.

The world will need to produce 60-80% more food by 2050 to adequately feed nine billion people, many of whom will require a higher-calorie, higher-protein diet than can be provided today. This challenge is akin to almost doubling food production and reducing the environmental foot print by using less water and other scarce resources.

Why isn’t the green revolution rolling on?

History has shown that innovation in agricultural production can meet big challenges. Between 1961 and 2008, the world’s population increased by a total of 117% and crop production rose by 179%.

Africa’s low rainfall meant last century’s green revolution didn’t take hold. Gates Foundation

But a lot of the easy gains have now been made, through the use of improved plant varieties, better use of fertilisers, agricultural chemicals and irrigation. In the developing world agricultural yields have almost trebled over the last 50 years - with the exception of Africa.

Many of the gains of the green revolution were made in irrigated agriculture in south and south-east Asia where farmers could invest in improved seed and fertiliser in the certain knowledge they would receive enough water to grow their crops. Dryland or unirrigated farming poses a far greater risk.

Agriculture varies enormously across the African continent, but most farmers face the same problems. They have an extremely variable climate. They are risk-averse and lack infrastructure including markets, finance, incentives and inputs.

A continent-wide issue with an international focus

The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change will put food security on the table at the next international climate change meeting. COP 17, as the meeting is known, will be held in Durban, South Africa, at the end of November.

The Commission will provide advice on:

  • creating opportunities for change in less developed regions like Africa
  • providing policies that allow agriculture to become a pathway to development
  • what role the international community can play to assist this change.

This can be a complex undertaking. Take the case of Malawi. Ten years ago, this small southern African nation was food insecure, despite its reasonable soil and high rainfall. The government, supported by foreign investors, introduced subsidies for seed and fertiliser, and today Malawi is a food exporter. It worked, but there is an active debate about these subsidies and whether they distort the market.

Another possible solution is linking private companies with small land holders. In West Africa private cotton companies are supplying farmers with credit, fertiliser, seed and technical support to grow cotton.

African farmers are taking a range of different approaches to increase productivity. Neil Palmer (CIAT)

It has enabled farmers to grow a cash crop. But it also has helped farmers realise the value of fertilisers. It is estimated the farmers have diverted perhaps one quarter of the fertiliser to their subsistence crops of maize, millet and sorghum.

There is some resistance to genetically modified crops in the developed world, but in Burkina Faso cotton genetically modified to express a natural insecticide has led to a 30% increase in productivity. It has also brought environmental benefits because farmers have to handle far less insecticide.

How can Australia help?

Farmers in Australia and Africa grow similar crops in similar environments and face similar problems with climatic variability. Scientists and farmers have the same conversations on both continents but infrastructure, financial services, government support and policy settings are very different.

CSIRO has long-standing experience in agricultural research, both in Australia and in Africa, which means we can play an important role in helping answer the questions posed by the Commission. In fact, CSIRO’s Chief Executive, Megan Clark, is a Commissioner.

And unlike most developed country agricultural research institutions, CSIRO has first-hand experience at home of tropical and subtropical production environments, characterised by infertile soils and high levels of climate variability. This experience is particularly relevant to parts of the developing world facing the greatest sustainable agriculture and food security challenges - such as Africa.‬

Australian understanding of variable climate could help African farmers. Gates Foundation

Australia has a critical role to play as a food producer and exporter of food and expertise. Australian science has played a critical role in helping farmers increase their production, despite operating in a climate that is the most variable of any inhabited continent. Many of the lessons learnt in adapting to a highly variable climate can be used effectively in managing the early impacts of climate change.

The areas of the world most at risk from climate change are the temperate and tropical semi-arid regions, areas in which Australian scientists and farmers have developed great expertise.

Australian plant breeders have put a lot of effort into breeding drought-resistant varieties of various crops. They are now looking at varieties that are more tolerant of higher temperatures and those that can take advantage of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations.

An uncertain future

The future could also mean transforming farming systems, establishing alternatives when climate change makes the current systems of production unviable. In the meantime, farmers will need to better deploy knowledge, technology and information systems so decisions can be based on probabilities of success rather than on gut feel.

The Commission has put together a set of solutions that aims to bridge the gap and change the business of agriculture and food production to increase available food and environmental sustainability in the face of climate change.

They include reducing losses on and off the farm, as one third of post-harvest food is lost or wasted by processors, distributors and households.

Ensuring global food security is already a huge challenge. Climate change is expected to exacerbate the problem. There is enough innovation and opportunity out there to meet the challenge.

But it will require significant changes to the global food system and a significant shared commitment by policy makers, farmers, investors, consumers, food companies and researchers.