Family farmers struggle to keep up with fast-warming world

Young African farmers Mavis Gofa and Andrew Goodman had a vastly different upbringing - Gofa grew up on a one-hectare (2.5-acre) farm and could not afford to finish high school, while Goodman’s family cultivated 275 hectares and educated him in Britain.

Both want a better life for the families who run the world’s half a billion small farms, many of whom remain steeped in poverty despite producing about 80% of food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, according to the United Nations.

It is a tough ask as climate change makes life even harder for millions of small-scale farmers - with scientists predicting more frequent and intense floods, droughts and storms.

A recent study led by University College London (UCL) showed such experiences could become widespread as the planet warms, with significant implications for hunger and inequality.

It looked at 18 crops - including those grown mainly in developing nations such as cassava, groundnut and rapeseed - representing 70% of the world’s crop area and about 65% of its calorific intake.

The study found that harvests of key crops - such as pulses in West Africa, rice in India and Pakistan, and wheat in Sudan - would fall if temperatures rose 1 degree Celsius above today’s levels, even without other impacts such as floods.

Globally, the average temperature has so far risen a little more than 1C since pre-industrial times, although the change varies in different parts of the world - and projections are for warming to increase further to 3C or more this century.

The study also said countries where increasing temperatures cause the most negative impacts already have lower-than-average yields and are struggling to feed their citizens, denting their resilience and ability to adapt to additional heating.

Poor nations face a triple whammy with food production pummelled, higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide reducing nutrients in crops, and a resulting spike in hunger and malnutrition, warned Paolo Agnolucci, the study’s lead author.

About 690 million people, or one in 11, went without enough to eat in 2019, and the United Nations has warned the COVID-19 pandemic could add another 132 million to that number in 2020.

The social implications of even 1C of additional warming could be “massive”, added Agnolucci, associate professor at UCL.

With global climate action moving at a slow pace, many small farmers in Africa are diversifying crops, to adapt to worsening weather extremes and shifting climate patterns.

Millions of small farmers have “woefully low access” to mobile networks and the Internet, putting digital technologies that could help them out of reach, said a study this month.

Less than 40% of farms smaller than a hectare have 3G or 4G cellular services and the cost of data remains prohibitive in many parts of Africa, said the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

The UCL-led study said expansion of irrigation and increased use of fertilisers and pesticides could protect yields, but would come with environmental costs, from growing water scarcity to nitrous oxide emissions from fertilisers.

The only long-lasting solution is cooperation to help transfer technology from rich to poor countries, said UCL’s Agnolucci. Without this, the number of farmers quitting their land and migrating north could grow, he warned.( Reuters.)

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