By Tracie McMillan
“The Plate,” National Geographic • March 11, 2016
Corn, beans and bananas could start to disappear from sub-Saharan Africa—where those crops are among the most important for local consumption—by century’s end. The culprit? Climate change.
A new study of staple crops in that region, published Monday in the journalNature Climate Change, predicts that by 2025, 30 percent of land in the region currently cultivated for bananas, primarily in West Africa, will become unsuitable for the crop, say researchers with the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research. Bananas are significant for local consumption, say researchers.
Meanwhile, 60 percent of bean agriculture will cease to be productive by 2050, as will 41 percent of land currently dedicated to maize, the study says. Those crops are incredibly dominant in the sub-Saharan diet, featured in dishes ranging from githeri, a flavorful corn and bean stew, to ugali, a mush made of cornmeal and water.
Five other prominent crops—millet, sorghum, cassava, groundnut and yams—are expected to maintain production levels through 2100. Crops grown primarily for export, such as coffee, cocoa, and tea, were not studied.
The research marks the first quantification of crop “transformation”—planning for the inevitable decline of certain crops—in Africa, said lead researcher Julian Ramirez-Villegas, a research fellow at the University of Leeds. In addition to projecting crop viability through the century, researchers also describe a three three-stage process for managing the shift.
The research has serious implications for sub-Saharan Africa, said Ramirez-Villegas. Agriculture contributes nearly two-thirds of all employment in that region and food insecurity rates there are already the highest in the world. “ “It’s kind of a combination of a lot of different vulnerabilities coalescing at the same time,” said Ramirez-Villegas. “And, at the same time, agriculture is a key sector for africanAfrican livelihoods.”
As those crops fail, farmers will need to adjust, either switching crops or, in extreme cases, give up agriculture altogether. And if crop outputs diminish, that could pressure sub-Saharan Africa, already a net importer of food, to rely even more on other countries to stay fed.
Much of the land being threatened by climate change will need to be “transitioned,” said Ramirez-Villegas, and put to other use. While maize, which only became a staple in Africa over the last century, may no longer be as viable, it could be replaced with millet and sorghum, which are native to Africa (and tolerant of heat and drought), and would likely thrive. The other alternative, say researchers, could be swapping crop agriculture for another kind of farming, such as livestock. Kenyan farmers, for example, began exploring camel husbandry as a replacement for cattle—or leaving farming altogether.
Those changes would have a direct impact on the food security and diet of residents in sub-Saharan Africa. With the exception of bananas, the crops in the study are all grown primarily for domestic consumption.
”“Most of the production [studied here] is consumed locally and sold in local markets, or produced for subsistence,” said Villegas-Ramirez. “But African countries are also importing significant amounts of food.”
Researchers plan to expand their research to explore additional substitute crops, said Villegas-Ramirez, as well as project the direct impact of changes in agriculture on the diet available to residents.