Drought-tolerant crops can end Africa’s food insecurity (Google / New Vision)

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Drought-tolerant crops can end Africa’s food insecurity

By Dr. Daniel Mataruka

A crisis is looming over the small-scale farms of Africa. Experts agree that climate change is manifesting itself in the form of prolonged drought in many parts of Africa. This is having a devastating impact on millions of resource-poor, small-scale farmers. And yet, for the first time in history, we have solutions in hand that can help these farmers cope with the effects of drought.

We can prepare them for climate change by rapidly increasing the development and use of drought-tolerant crops in Africa. We know how to do this. We just need the political will to get it done.

The choices we make now and in the coming years will determine how quickly these new crop varieties can be put into the hands of Africa’s farmers, helping to boost yields and reduce poverty and hunger.

The prolonged drought affecting East Africa is making global headlines. Food Agriculture Organistaion estimates that, because of drought, Kenya’s vital maize crop, which accounts for 80% of the country’s annual cereal production, will drop by more than a quarter below its usual level. The World Food Programme estimates that across East Africa, more than 20 million people are on the brink of starvation and in dire need of food aid.

Research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research provides strong evidence that the emerging effects of climate change will only make this situation worse. If their predictions hold true, many of Africa’s small-scale farmers will become increasingly vulnerable, and our efforts to ensure food security and prosperity for the nations of sub-Saharan Africa will be imperiled.

If the climate predictions are correct, Africa’s toughest days are still ahead of her. We must prepare. Scientists and even political leaders recognise that drought tolerance is one of the most desirable traits to target in breeding better crops for Africa (and globally, for that matter). Thus, to help Africa’s farmers meet the challenge of climate change, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation is leading a public-private partnership called “Water Efficient Maize for Africa,” which aims to develop drought-tolerant maize using conventional breeding, marker-assisted breeding, and biotechnology.

These drought-tolerant varieties will help stabilise maize yields and assure small-scale farmers of harvests, especially during periods of moderate drought.

While maize is crucial to food security in East and Southern Africa, our efforts must extend beyond this crop.

To cope with climate change, we will need an arsenal of new drought-tolerant food crops, including rice, sorghum, millet, cassava and other staples. These will be vital to food security not only in East and Southern Africa, but elsewhere as well, particularly in West Africa’s Sahel region.

Sadly, African farmers have yet to benefit from such modern technologies, which have improved the productivity and lives of farmers in other regions. The problem is political, not scientific.

Africa’s technology gap exists largely because most countries do not have functional regulatory systems that are needed to assess, approve and deliver new agricultural products to farmers.

Without better policies and regulations that make good, higher-yielding seeds and inputs available, the reality is that Africa’s most vulnerable farmers will continue to fall further behind farmers in other parts of the world. We stand on a precipice.

Wise decisions now will change the prospects for Africa’s food situation in the long term. It is possible for Africa to be defined by prosperity and enjoy ample supplies of food for its people, despite global food crises, increased episodes of drought and the extremes of weather brought on by climate change.

Action now requires increased collaboration, broader partnerships and continued support from development partners to secure food security for Africa.

The key stone to Africa’s future food security and independence is political will and especially policies that enhance, rather than hinder, productivity and profitability of its small-scale farmers.

The writer is the executive director, African Agricultural Technology Foundation


Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.