Africa’s Agriculture Vulnerable to Breakdown Under Climate Change

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Africa has been responsible for less than 3 percent of global emissions due to fossil fuel burning, and preliminary research suggests it may even be a net carbon absorber.

Yet Africa’s future if climate change continues apace looks grim: the devastation of its farms and fisheries, flooding of its river deltas, and the ruin of its mangrove swamps and coral reefs. Such damage will be worsened by Africa’s awesome poverty, because the continent has far less money to spend on adaptation and mitigation than the industrialized West.

So far, too little attention has been paid to global warming’s impact on African agriculture. Its vulnerability to breakdown has been put into sharp relief by recent droughts and the global food crisis. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report notes,

By 2020, in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 percent. Agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries is projected to be severely compromised. This would further adversely affect food security and exacerbate malnutrition.

The working paper observes that agricultural systems will be “severely compromised” by anthropogenic climate change. For Africa, this will be particularly cruel. Researchers note that agriculture contributes between 10 and 70 percent of GDP across the continent. In turn, they observe that

In other countries, additional risks that could be exacerbated by climate change include greater erosion, deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture of up to 50 percent during the 2000-2020 period, and reductions in crop growth period. … A recent study on South African agricultural impacts, based on three scenarios, indicates that crop net revenues will be likely to fall by as much as 90 percent by 2100, with small-scale farmers being the most severely affected.

Of course, such estimates were made based on the now-outmoded 2007 IPCC projections. The worst-case scenarios of those models are now assumed to be totally realistic, if not downright conservative.

Some numbers from the recent study on global warming’s impact on world agriculture by economist William Cline highlight the immensity of the problem. Even if carbon fertilization, the process wherein increased carbon in the atmosphere accelerates plant growth, occurs to the fullest extent, the continent’s total agricultural production will fall by 6 percent, and it will fall by 18 percent if that doesn’t pan out.

But such numbers are seriously skewed by Egypt, which is both a major agricultural producer as well as an outlier with respect to changes in agricultural production. Its yields are expected to increase as temperatures increase. Excluding Egypt, the continent will suffer production losses ranging from 19 percent with carbon fertilization to 29 percent without it.

The panorama appears yet bleaker when one looks at individual countries.

In Mali, Niger, the Sudan and much of the Horn of Africa and West Africa, arid or semi-arid agriculture will likely be wiped out. More broadly, swathes of the Horn of Africa will lose 94 percent of their agricultural production, with or without carbon fertilization, Cline found. Senegal will lose over 80 percent in either scenario, and the Sudan, close to 80 percent, as well.

In Somalia, included in the Horn of Africa statistics, years of drought and the resulting evisceration of its agriculture base have led to a worsening lawlessness. While the origin of the violence has little to do with ecology, it blocks food aid. Such unforeseen tragedies are not included in the IPCC models, although recent research suggests global warming is responsible for more than one-third of the recent worldwide droughts.

The destruction of Sudanese agriculture merits particular comment.

Starting in the 1970s, and accelerating since then, drought cycles and an increase in the Sahara’s size have created conflicts over land-use between nomadic tribes and landed farmers. Thereupon, conflict intensified. The landed peasant tribes mounted an insurgency. The nomads, desperate to control lands of diminishing agricultural value, were armed by the government, forming the Janjawiid militias.

As British Home Secretary John Reid summed it up:

[Environmental] changes make the emergence of violent conflict more rather than less likely…The blunt truth is that the lack of water and agricultural land is a significant contributory factor to the tragic conflict we see unfolding in Darfur. We should see this as a warning sign.

From there, the story is familiar—death, violence, and destruction, another example of climate change’s “externalities” that cannot be factored even into the IPCC’s hyper-scrupulous models.

Furthermore, the International Food Policy Research Institute reports that agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for an estimated 65 percent of Africans. Yet one third of its population is food-insecure, and demand for basic foodstuffs is projected to double by 2015.

You don’t need a crystal ball to see that when supply declines and demand ascends, conflict results. All you need to do is read the newspaper, or Google “Darfur.”

That seems a pretty bad way to leave the continent that has contributed so little to global warming, to have it suffer so much for it.