Small Farmers in Africa Will Experience the Worst of Climate Change

Smallholders with less than five acres produce much of the world’s food and are at the greatest risk of losing crops because of the changing environment.

A woman checks a maize crop on a small-scale farm in Chinhamora, about 50 kilometers north of Harare, Zimbabwe. (Photo: Alexander Joe/Getty Images)

Sep 30, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Spoiler alert: Climate change is going to be rough on agriculture.

As a recent report by Agriculture for Impact found, “hunger and malnutrition could increase by as much as 20 percent as a result of climate change” by 2050. The USDA concurs with this assessment, citing water restrictions, rising temperatures, reduced forage for livestock, and increased insect populations as some of the reasons for its detrimental effects.

The consequences will be harder on some groups than others. Agriculture for Impact’s report, published last week, focuses on African smallholder farmers, one of the groups that will be particularly at risk. Unlike the United States, where only 1 percent of the population are farm operators and 15 percent of all jobs are related to agriculture via processing, wholesale, or other fields, agriculture is the biggest employer in most African countries. But these smallholder farms—those with less than five acres—account for 70 percent of global food production.

Even without climate change, Africa’s farmers are in a more geographically and structurally precarious position than those in developed countries. For example, the World Bank has projected an increased demand for food in sub-Saharan Africa of 60 percent. That need to increase production would be a challenge in a stable climate, but mean temperatures are predicted to rise “faster than the global average” in Africa. This will result in severely decreased grain crop yields—as much as 22 percent in the case of wheat—as the population goes up. Water restrictions caused by drought could be even more dire in Africa, where only 6 percent of cultivated land is irrigated—the lowest percentage in the world—according to an International Food Policy Research Institute report.

These are just the projected issues. The real question is, how likely is it that African smallholder farmers can work around some of these climate change–related effects? Both this type of farmer and industrial farmers in developed nations “are likely to get hit by climate change and have negative impacts on their crops, yields, or crop production,” said Mark Rosegrant, director of the environment and production technology division at IFPRI. “The difference is that farmers in the U.S. have many more systems in place that can help support them to cope and adapt to climate change.”

Benefits for U.S. farmers include access to the best seed varieties—including heat- and drought-tolerant types in development—access to commercial and banking credit, crop insurance, and precision agriculture technologies that can cut down on water, fertilizer, and pesticide use. None of this is the case for smallholder farmers in developing nations, at least not at the scale U.S. farmers enjoy.

That doesn’t mean smallholder farmers are at the mercy of the elements. “They are really smart farmers, and they do cope and adapt by doing things like changing their cropping pattern,” said Rosegrant. If maize crops start to fail (some results have shown it may be hit harder than other crops, according to Rosegrant), farmers could switch to cassava, another staple. Agriculture for Impact gives the example of Nwadjahane, a village in southern Mozambique, where farmers are “taking significant measures” to slow or counteract the effects of climate change. One method is reassigning portions of lowland and highland areas (lowland crops are often destroyed by flooding, while highland crops wither during drought) and changing crops depending on the weather, “which helped farmers to improve their families’ food security during droughts and floods.”

Farming associations that put villagers into groups, creating small farming collectives, can also “spread the risk of new practices and technologies” while allowing farmers to experiment with new agricultural techniques. With enough research and technology resources, smallholder farmers can continue to grow food—but with an erratic climate, a catastrophe could be just one failed crop away.

Which is why costs, too, are part of the discussion. “Large amounts of money probably have to go to developing rural infrastructure to connect farmers to markets,” said Rosegrant. This will help them get better deals for machinery, seeds, or other necessary inputs while providing the opportunity to get higher prices for the food they grow. Even with the technology and the tractors, one of the most powerful tools American farmers have in the war to mitigate climate change is a buffer between a bad year and financial ruin.