Farming in Africa is like farming on Mars

20 November 2015

Written by
Sophia Lüttringhaus

Recently UN experts warned of climate change induced risks to food security. More frequent and intense weather extremes as well as a general rise of mean temperature and sea level will cause this risk to grow. Food security and climate change were high on the agenda at the Tropentag conference, bringing together over 1000 experts to seek solutions to the biggest challenges in tropical and sub-tropical agriculture.

 ©Photo Stephen Morrison, DFAT
©Photo Stephen Morrison, DFAT

“Farming in Africa is like farming on Mars”- this is how Carter Coleman (CEO of the agribusiness Agrica Limited) described the difficulties of farming in Africa at this year’s Tropentag conference at Humboldt University in Berlin, September 16 -18. Recently, experts from the UN Human Rights Council warned that due to climate change induced food insecurity over 600 million additional people would suffer malnutrition by 2080. These numbers will grow with frequent and intense weather extremes as well as a general rise of mean temperature and sea level. This topic was also highlighted during the Tropentag conference, so that the statement from the UN prompt us to provide an impression from that conference, the largest European interdisciplinary conference on research on tropical and subtropical agricultural and natural resource management.

The conference covers resource management, environment, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, food and nutrition in the context of rural development, sustainable resource use, and poverty alleviation worldwide. It is an ideal occasion for scientists to discuss what issues farmers and implementation organizations are struggling with. Key amongst these challenges are rapidly changing conditions due to climate change.

With a growing world population, changing consumer preferences and increasing climate change, these topics have gained wider interest. Especially within the discussion of the post 2015 development agenda the need for more sustainable and higher yielding agricultural practices is discussed. Sustainable resource management and agriculture are necessary to meet the new Sustainable Development Goals. Their second goal is to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

This sustainable amplification of agriculture is the reason why more than 1,000 scientists, practitioners, decision makers as well as representatives from funding organisations came together in Berlin. This year’s conference theme was ‘Management of land use systems for enhanced food security – conflicts, controversies and resolutions.’

The conference offers an ideal opportunity to connect scientists with implementation organisations and the private sector, to search for solutions to the greatest challenges for smallholder agriculture. One of the key challenges is posed by the impacts of climate change on agricultural production, such as dropping crop yields. Turn down the heat: climate extremes, regional impacts, and the case for resilience, a sobering report published by the World Bank, outlines the drastic impacts of temperature extremes and changing precipitation patterns in an increasingly warmer world.

The second major challenge is the flow of agricultural goods from the farmer to the final costumer (value chain management). Some of the main questions here are: How to establish markets for small-scale farmers to provide them with a monetary income (as compared to barter)? What kind of value added products can be sold? How to reduce post-harvest losses? How to match costumer and producer needs?

Food Security

Prof. Thomas Pogge (Yale University) demonstrated how important concise and comparable statistics as well as definitions are to produce useful food security statistics. In his paper ‘The Human Right to Adequate Food,’ Pogge identifies significant inadequacies in the statistics used by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) to measure progress in eliminating chronic undernourishment. One example for FAO statistics is the FAO Hunger Map displaying the achievement of the first Millennium Development Goal (eradicating extreme poverty and hunger). Pogge fears that the extent and trend of chronic undernourishment are much worse than the FAO leads us to believe. Some of the key issues he identifies include: the exclusion of 61 highly populated developing countries due to lack of reliable data; a narrow definition of ‘undernourishment’ where the FAO focuses solely on energy intake whilst ignoring problems with food absorption due to disease and ignoring seasonal hunger common in rural areas.

Climate Change

Climate smart agriculture played a big role during the conference. Many posters illustrated more sustainable production methods (e.g. new crop varieties, adapted agronomic practices) or climate change impacts on crop yields in different countries. Prof. Hermann Lotze-Campen (PIK) provided an overview of climate impacts on agriculture and land use. On average climate change will lower yields, alter production patterns and increase food prices. Interestingly the impact of bioenergy production on food prices is found to be quite low.

Challenges of future agriculture and resource management

The closing speakers highlighted several challenges. Carter Coleman (Agrica Limited) represented the private sector, presenting a Tanzania case study – the Kilombero Plantations Limited (KPL). KPL is a commercial rice farm in Tanzania, which since its inception in 2008 has trained over 7000 smallholder farmer families to improve their yields. As expressed in the title, he compared farming in Africa to farming on mars, because all inputs such as fertilizers and machinery have to be procured externally. Further difficulties arise from long investment horizons, limited infrastructure (e.g. electricity generation, drying and milling facilities) and insufficient financial support for small-scale farmers.

Prof. Miguel Altieri (Berkeley University) talked about agroecology as a possible new approach to enhancing food security, especially considering current climate change and energy crisis scenarios.
Agroecology focuses on the basic ecological principles for studying, designing, and managing sustainable agroecosystems that conserve natural resources and are productive, culturally-sensitive, socially-just and economically viable.

Altieri condemned the unequal distribution of food causing hunger, large food empires controlling the market and the use of arable land for fuel production. He proposed to consider agriculture as multifunctional serving nutritional, cultural and social purposes.

I am looking forward to the new scientific findings aiming at reducing hunger, poverty and environmental degradation in the light of climate change at next year’s Tropentag 2016 in Vienna. An integration of traditional and scientific knowledge is highly necessary because the scientific community is needed to help especially small-scale farmers adjusting their agricultural practices under a quickly changing climate. This way the backbone of worldwide food production and (agro-) biodiversity conservation can be sustained.

For further insights on these topics please see:

World Bank Report: Turn down the heat: climate extremes, regional impacts, and the case for resilience
FAO Report: Climate change and food systems – Global assessments and implications for food security and trade
CGIAR Working Paper: Climate change impacts on African crop production