Marci Baranski is a PhD student at Arizona State University in “Biology and Society,” an interdisciplinary degree. Her research focuses on the human and social dimensions of climate change adaptation in agriculture.
Climate change is now globally recognized as a threat to food security and human well-being. Countries that are highly dependent on agriculture and with poor political and technological infrastructures are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change . Sub-Saharan Africa hosts 12 out of 25 of the most climate-vulnerable countries, according to a recent report. This post will focus mostly on climate change adaptation, which is defined by the IPCC as “adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects” . Droughts, increased pests, and flooding all threaten food security in Africa, and women and smallholder farmers will bear a disproportionate cost of adapting to these impacts . Yet the focus on fear and vulnerability has led to a new regime of climate change research, policy and initiatives that are leading Africa in the wrong direction.
Half a century ago, the “Green Revolution” increased the yields of staple crops across Central America and South Asia. Time has shown the negative consequences of these new crops and the advent of industrial monocropping. The first Green Revolution never took hold in Africa, but calls for a “second Green Revolution”- this time in Africa- grow louder. Many donors cling to the idea that Africa just needs more food. I argue that instead we should turn to better food that is appropriate for the local social and environmental systems. Significant investments from donors like the Gates Foundation are driving the “Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa,” which hopes that new research and technology can feed Africa. In the face of ecological problems such as climate change, limited access to freshwater, and nutrient depletion, the threats are real, but the solutions are not so simple.
The ecological effects of climate change cannot be separated from the social context of agriculture. For example, women grow more than half of Africa’s food, but are often overlooked by traditional research and extension programs. I saw this first hand when, in 2008, I spent three months in Bangladesh in the aftermath of a devastating cyclone. Agricultural rehabilitation efforts were almost exclusively focused on male farmers, and created dependency by giving farmers free high-cost inputs like hybrid seeds and fertilizer. Once the crisis is over, these farmers are just as vulnerable to climate change impacts, but now they have higher capital investments every season as well as higher risk. This is the Green Revolution in its prime.
Climate change both challenges and drives agricultural innovation. Talk of “climate-smart” farming and “climate-ready” crops dominate the international discourse and command international funding. In the previous century, the perceived “population bomb” drove agricultural research that led to the Green Revolution. Yet we know today that the population problem was a neo-Malthusian blame game. Nature magazine’s food issue read, “”It’s not about the bomb … Even as population has risen, the overall availability of calories per person has increased, not decreased” .
In contrast to last century’s misguided population nightmare, we are already seeing the impacts of climate change on African agriculture and water resources . We look to science for answers, but the issue of climate change is complex and difficult to predict the local impacts. There are lessons we can learn from the Green Revolution, as well as new forms of technological exploitation such as the commoditization of genetic diversity and corporate control of genetically modified crops. The previous Green Revolution should teach us that broad, technological fixes will not solve world hunger- especially in Africa.
During the Green Revolution research institutions like the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) developed higher-yielding crops to ameliorate the perceived population bomb in countries like India and Mexico. Yet food policy experts question the capacity of the CGIAR to address new challenges in global food production such as climate change . The CGIAR has historically invested in plant breeding, which, along with increased fertilizer application, was the main method of increasing crop yields in the Green Revolution. However, global climate change is predicted to have highly uneven and locally contextualized impacts; impacts that higher yielding crops alone cannot address. How long have we been waiting for the promised results of biotechnology, and how much longer will we wait on promises of drought resistant crops? In the meantime, we must focus on local, sustainable solutions.
Sweeping global policies and research investments are not the solution to climate change adaptation in agriculture. Investing in infrastructure, addressing government corruption, and increasing social capital are adaptations that are necessary even outside of climate change. Africa faces shocks in the climate system that we simply cannot predict, but these investments are poised to improve human well-being and improve Africa’s capacity for climate adaptation. We also must recognize the connections between local health and food security, such as the impact of HIV/AIDS on food production and vice versa . Local efforts like Gardens for Health address both human and environmental sustainability. Ultimately, strategies to alleviate the impacts of climate change on agriculture must go beyond classifying vulnerable groups and prescribing technological solutions– instead we must empower them as agents of change. Developed countries, largely responsible for anthropogenic climate change, have a moral responsibility support these grassroots solutions.
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2001. Third Assessment Report Glossary. P. 365.
 IPCC. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 273-313.
 “Food: The Growing Problem.” 29 July 2010. Nature 466, 546-547.
 Von Braun, J. 2010. Strategic body needed to beat food crises. Nature 465:548-549.
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