By Danielle Nierenberg
Danielle Nierenberg is the Director of the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project.
Farmers in Africa and America had a lot in common this summer. While farmers in the Sahel have been facing extreme weather events—mainly drought—for decades, food producers in the American Midwest and Western United States were hit by the driest summer in more than 50 years. And the impacts of these “natural” disasters will last longer than just a few months. High food prices, malnutrition, and debt will be felt for many months and years to come. But American farmers are finding out that they might have a lot to learn from their counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa regarding innovative approaches to dealing with lack of rainfall, high temperatures, and other effects of climate change, making agriculture more resilient and profitable over the long run.
On a global scale, higher temperatures have already harmed global food production, causing food prices to spike by up to 20 percent in recent decades. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that the Earth’s average surface air temperature will steadily increase by 6.4 degrees Celsius by 2099, but changes in climate patterns are already evident. Erratic and unpredictable weather patterns, attributable to climate change, have already disrupted global agricultural production.
According to the World Bank, droughts can significantly affect economic development, poverty levels, and the prevalence of malnutrition, especially in less developed countries. Droughts in India over the last four decades have reduced the annual income of households by to up 80 percent. Drought patterns in Malawi could increase the prevalence of poverty by 17 percent, and will most heavily impact rural communities.
Unfortunately, global food price spikes are no longer an occasional phenomenon. They are likely, according to many economists, at a new plateau, not unlike oil prices, with no sign of prices going down.
But more diversified cropping systems, including growing indigenous vegetable varieties and raising livestock along with crops, can help insulate farmers and consumers alike against food price shocks and climate change. And indigenous foods tend to be more resistant to drought, disease, and high temperatures, making them a win-win for farmers and the environment. The Pomme du Sahel fruit tree, for example, is one of the few hardy tree species that can survive and produce fruit on the windswept and heavily degraded soils of the African Sahel. Similarly, Texas longhorn cattle are prized by U.S. farmers for their adaptability to harsh summers in American South and Midwest.
Conserving precious water supplies, through rainwater harvesting, wastewater recycling, and other water conservation methods, can also be an effective way of maintaining production during dry periods. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that, on average, it takes 1,500 liters of water to produce one kilogram of wheat, and 5,000 liters of water for one kilogram of rice, making it more important than ever to get more “crop per drop.”
In Accra, Ghana, the International Water Management Institute has been working with urban farmers to teach simple filtering methods, making wastewater safe for farming. And at the Land Institute in Kansas, American farmers and researchers are discovering the potential of perennial crops to conserve water, soil nutrients, and on-farm energy use. Annual crops have shallow roots and require replanting each year; but perennial crops, such as asparagus and blueberries, keep their roots intact and bear fruit from year to year, saving farmers the time and energy of replanting and nurturing young plants.
These are just a few of the inexpensive innovations that can help farmers from Africa to the United States cope with changing climates, creating resilience over both the short and long term. Research and investment into time-tested farming practices will help ensure a steady food supply—as well as healthy soils and water systems—in the coming decades.