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What can smallholder farmers grow in a warmer world? Climate change and future crop suitability in East and Southern Africa

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IFAD report predicts steep drop in African staple crops by 2050, prompting urgent call for adaptation funding at COP26

Rome, 27 October 2021 – Staple crops in eight African countries could decrease by as much as 80 percent by 2050 in some areas if temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, according to a report released today by the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). This could have a catastrophic impact on poverty and food availability unless there is an urgent injection of funding to help vulnerable farmers adapt how and what they farm.

The organisation warned that COP26 will fail to achieve a lasting impact if world leaders continue to prioritise mitigation and neglect investments in climate adaptation.

The report What Can Smallholder Farmers Grow in a Warmer World? Climate Change and Future Crop Suitability in East and Southern Africa shows that if no changes are made to agricultural practices or global policies, erratic weather patterns, drier conditions and an increase in temperatures by 2°C will have a devastating impact on yields of staple and cash crops grown by small-scale farmers in parts of Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. For example, in a worst-case scenario, the annual maize crop per household in the Namibe province in Angola could decrease by 77 percent by 2050.

At next week’s UN climate change conference (COP26) in Glasgow, the spotlight will be on the unfulfilled commitment wealthier countries made six years ago to mobilize US$100 billion a year in climate finance for less developed countries by 2020. Even if this target was reached, it would be insufficient. Annual adaptation costs in developing countries alone are expected to reach $140 to $300 billion per year by 2030. Currently climate finance flows are focused primarily on mitigating global warming. For every $18 dollars spent on mitigation, just $1 is spent on adaptation.

“Mitigation and adaptation are like the two wings of a bird, we cannot continue flying on one wing,” said Dr. Jyotsna Puri, IFAD’s Associate Vice President of the Strategy and Knowledge Department, which produced the report. “While efforts in mitigation are essential, they will take two or three decades to bear fruit. We must urgently invest in adaptation now so that small-scale farmers, like the ones in this study, can continue to grow the crops they rely on for their incomes and to feed their nations.”

While no country is immune to the impacts of climate change, small-scale farmers in developing countries are the most vulnerable and the least able to cope. They produce a third of the world’s food and up to 80 percent in some areas of Africa and Asia, but receive less than 2 percent of the funds invested globally in climate finance.

Insufficient funding for adaptation will have ripple effects across the world. Falling crop yields are expected to lead to higher food prices, a decrease in food availability, and a rise in hunger and poverty. This could trigger increased migration, conflict and instability. Globally, one in ten people were living with hunger in 2020, with the figure increasing in Africa to one out of five people.

According to the report’s findings, the impact of climate change will inevitably force fundamental changes to local crop choices and agricultural practices by 2050 in these countries. Recommended investments in adaptation include:

  • Planting alternative crops and crop diversification, for example reducing reliance on maize in favour of beans, other legumes, or grains.

  • Planting different varieties, including locally adapted varieties.

  • Using different planting techniques, with improved seeds and plant material.

  • Strengthening storage and processing capacities and infrastructure, and climate proofing value chains.

  • Improving access to and management of irrigation.

    “COP26 is a turning point for humanity,” said Puri. “We must not squander this opportunity to limit the rise in temperatures while at the same time supporting farmers to become resilient to the effects of climate change. The very survival of rural farming communities depends on their ability to adapt.”

IFAD is the only multilateral development organization focused on eradicating hunger and poverty in rural areas and has committed to dedicating half of its climate finance budget to adaptation. Earlier this year, it launched ASAP+, a climate financing mechanism envisioned to be the largest fund dedicated to channelling climate finance to small-scale producers to help them adapt to climate change and combat hunger and malnutrition.

Notes to editor

The situation in these countries can be improved. The report generally recommends reducing reliance on maize, for example, in favour of cassava, groundnuts, beans, sorghum and millet in most countries profiled, and other actions like switching to short-maturing strains of maize or staggering planting phases to increase resilience as weather patterns evolve. With support for research and development, farmers in the countries profiled can diversify and identify other locally appropriate alternatives to crops that will suffer or fail due to changing climate and rainfall patterns. With technical support, farmers can adopt new practices ranging from irrigation to planting techniques to access to improved seeds to make their farms more resistant to disease and pests. Finally, investments can help improve post-harvest processing facilities.

PR/65/2021

IFAD invests in rural people, empowering them to reduce poverty, increase food security, improve nutrition and strengthen resilience. Since 1978, we have provided US$23.2 billion in grants and low-interest loans to projects that have reached an estimated 518 million people. IFAD is an international financial institution and a United Nations specialized agency based in Rome – the United Nations food and agriculture hub.