Coping with Climate Change and Food Insecurity in East Africa

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By Carol Dreibelbis

A landmark study published recently by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security surveyed over 700 farming households in East Africa about how they are coping with climate change. Researchers set out to answer the seemingly simple question, “Are households that are more innovative more likely to be food secure than less-innovative farming households?”

Agroforestry was one of the most common innovations found in the survey of East African farmers (Photo Credit: A Tribute to Trees)

According to the report, more than half of all households surveyed made innovative agricultural changes over the past decade. These farmers have been adopting a wide variety of strategies and technologies to protect against heat, water scarcity, eroding landscapes, depletion of soil nutrients, and other factors that can decrease yields and increase food insecurity. For instance, 55 percent of households planted one faster-maturing crop variety, while 56 percent planted one drought-tolerant variety; at the same time, 50 percent of households took up agroforestry, or incorporated tree crops into a farming system; 50 percent introduced intercropping, or planting multiple crops in a small space; and 25 percent used crop rotation techniques.

But even as these farmers were willing to embrace certain farming strategies and technologies, the report shows that there is a limit to the innovation taking place. Many yield-boosting strategies have yet to take hold in these villages. Only 25 percent of farmers used manure or compost to improve soil fertility; only 16 percent of households used terracing, ridge-building, or other soil management techniques to conserve water; and only one-third of households in Ethiopia and one-fifth in Tanzania are taking steps to manage pasturelands to better support livestock. All in all, most households made minor, non-transformational changes to their farming practices.

Patti Kristjanson, one of the study co-leaders, explains that “for generations, farmers and livestock keepers in East Africa have survived high levels of weather variability by testing and adopting new farming practices. As this variability increases, rainfall patterns shift, and average temperatures rise due to climate change, they may need to change faster and more extensively.” So what is keeping these farmers from making more dramatic changes?

The study found that food insecurity is a key obstacle to innovation. As might be expected, households that struggle to feed themselves are not in a strong position to innovate. Unfortunately, the study was unable to determine the direction of causality in this relationship—in other words, it is unclear whether food insecurity results in decreased innovation, or whether limited innovation results in food insecurity.

Given that small-scale farmers in the developing world are particularly vulnerable to the weather and ecological changes associated with climate change, such as decreased rainfall or wider temperature variation, future research to better understand the relationship between innovation and food security will be crucial.

What agricultural innovations are effective for coping with the effects of climate change in your experience? What are the biggest barriers to their implementation? Please let us know in the comments.

Carol Dreibelbis is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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