Agriculture and Climate Change: Part of the Problem, Part of the Solution

Since the declaration of the UN Millennium Development Goals in 2000, the world has made significant progress in reducing hunger. However, an estimated 200 million Africans continue to be chronically malnourished, and five million people still die as a result of hunger each year. In a new report put forth by the Montpellier Panel last month, researchers warn that without further investment in climate-smart agriculture by both governments and international donors, the situation in Africa south of the Sahara could become even more dire.

The report estimates that without increased funding for sustainable agricultural production and climate change adaptation, hunger and childhood malnutrition in the region could increase by more than 20 percent by the middle of this century. Already hit hard by climatic changes and severe weather events, Africa could see its mean temperatures increase even faster than the global average (+2o), reaching as high as 3o to 6o higher than 20th century levels. The report also cites that the region’s agricultural losses could amount to as much as 7 percent of total GDP by 2100.

What can be done to prevent these catastrophic effects? The report recommends setting ten priorities. First, governments and international bodies such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) need to put climate change’s threat to food and nutrition security at the top of their agendas. Specific focus needs to be given to vulnerable groups such as smallholder farmers and women; these populations tend to suffer disproportionately more from climate-related agricultural shocks, but they also have the potential to play an important role in increasing resilience to climate change, if properly supported.

Second, increased investment in sustainable agriculture is needed in order to help farmers in the developing world adapt to climate change, mitigate its effects, and secure their livelihoods. Agriculture is a large contributor to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; over the past decade, emissions from crop and livestock production have actually increased. While Africa’s overall contribution to global GHG emissions remains comparatively small, emissions from the region’s agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU) sectors are comparatively high and are increasing by 1-2 percent every year. Across the continent, AFOLU emissions account for 28 percent of total GHG emissions. Helping farmers engage in more sustainable production practices, such as improved soil management and land use techniques, can help to reduce this high percentage.

Third, governments need to invest in better weather monitoring, weather data collection, and climate modeling in order to provide improved climate change estimates and more accurately predict extreme weather events. Africa’s climate is both highly diverse and highly variable, meaning that climate change will have a wide range of effects (predominantly harmful) across the region. As the region warms, resulting in higher sea and land surface temperatures, the incidence and severity of events like droughts and floods have increased. Temperature and weather changes have the potential to reduce agricultural yields and impact the quality of crops, livestock, and fisheries. IFPRI estimates that total rice, wheat, and maize yields in Africa south of the Sahara will drop by 14 percent, 22 percent, and 5 percent, respectively, by 2050 as a result of climate change.1 It is also estimated that more than 60 percent of Africa’s current maize-producing areas will experience yield losses.2 Better funded and equipped meteorological services will be crucial in helping governments and farmers understand and prepare for an increased incidence of extreme weather events.

Fourth, there must be increased investment in research into the responses of different crop varieties and livestock breeds to droughts, floods, and heat stress. This understanding must be increased at both the governmental and the local level, and efforts must be made to increase farmers’ adoption of improved varieties and breeds.

Fifth, better regional and national estimates of the number of people suffering from food and nutrition security must be generated in order to enact appropriate resilience-building strategies. These estimates also need to include the prevalence of micronutrient deficiency. As agricultural production is threatened by climate change, many countries are likely to see a jump in the price of their staple crops. As a result, vulnerable groups such as smallholder farmers and women, who already deal with a higher incidence of poverty, will have even less money to spend on a nutritious, diverse diet. A 2001 IFPRI research brief estimates that per capita calorie availability in Africa south of the Sahara is projected to decline by 37 calories per day; childhood malnutrition is also projected to increase to 39 million children affected by 2030, up from 30 million in 2000. In order for national governments and local communities to strengthen their resilience to these challenges, a clearer picture of exactly how many people, and which specific populations, are at risk is needed.

Sixth, proven community-based resilience and adaptation techniques need to be scaled up. These include soil, water, and nutrient management projects, conservation technologies, and risk management tools. For example, the planting of nitrogen-fixing crops can improve soil quality and reduce the risk of over-fertilization. Scaling such programs up effectively will require increased investment by governments, international donors, and the private sector; however, it is crucial that local communities are allowed to take the lead. The report recommends placing decision-making power and funding in the hands of local administrations and authorities, as they often have a better idea of the actual agricultural situation in their areas. Working with communities to learn from programs that are already working will help to ensure that top-down approaches are appropriate and effective over the long term.

Seventh, international organizations and governments must focus on helping smallholder farmers reduce and offset their greenhouse gas emissions. While efforts to keep global temperature rises below 2o have often focused on global industry, the role of agriculture in GHG emission has been largely overlooked. Increasing farmers’ capacity to engage in sustainable production practices will help both boost agricultural production and reduce emissions.

Eighth, investment should be targeted at interventions that improving carbon and other greenhouse gases in the soil. Such interventions include planting trees, improving land use management practices, and utilizing no-till farming methods; these techniques essentially trap greenhouse gases in the soil, preventing them from being released into the atmosphere. Preventing clear-cutting of trees and natural vegetation has the added benefits of reducing soil erosion and loss of soil fertility, and increasing crop yields and incomes.

Ninth, funding for climate change adaptation and mitigation needs to be improved so that African governments can better access funds that benefit their smallholder populations. Between 2003 and 2013, US$34 billion was pledged to various climate change funds; however, SSA received just US$2.3 billion of that, of which only 45 percent was used for adaptation projects. This is a significant financial gap that needs to be filled in the region is to reach its climate change adaptation potential. In 2009, developed countries pledged US$30 billion in “fast-start financing” to support developing countries’ climate efforts. These funds could help African governments support sustainable agriculture and agroforestry programs and could target smallholders’ specific adaptation needs. However, as climate change is not a “one-size-fits-all” challenge, financing mechanisms need to be designed in conjunction with local communities to ensure that funds are reaching those in need and are effective in dealing with the climate-related challenges faced in each region.

Finally, designing and implementing climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies will require strong political leadership, properly functioning markets, and an effective regulatory environment. Climate change planning needs to be integrated across government ministries, and local, national, and regional efforts must be coordinated. The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) can provide a role model for such coordination efforts. In addition, the private sector will need to be included at the local, national, and regional level, and substantial investment needs to be in education and capacity-strengthening. Increasing awareness about climate change needs to be a priority for African governments.

Agriculture is part of the problem when it comes to climate change, contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. But farmers and agriculture also have the potential to be an important part of the solution to climate change. It is up to world leaders, the international donor community, and the global private sector to make sure that African smallholder farmers have the resources, funding, and capacity they need to drive sustainable agricultural development, reduce GHG emissions, and build resilience to climate change and extreme weather events.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI


1. International Food Policy Research Institute, (2009), Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture - Factsheet on Sub-Saharan Africa.

2. Lobell, D.B. et al., (2011), Nonlinear heat effects on African maize as evidenced by historical yield trials, Nature Climate Change Vol. 1.

Photo credit:Flickr: ML020S06 World Bank