A shifting climate could mean trouble for one of Africa’s staple crops

The World
As the climate shifts, growing corn, a staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa, could become increasingly difficult.

As the climate shifts, growing corn, a staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa, could become increasingly difficult.

CIAT/Neil Palmer

One of the warnings from the new climate change report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, is food insecurity: It will be harder to grow many crops in parts of the world.

That includes staple crops like corn, wheat and rice. In Kenya, this could dramatically shift societal norms, where corn is life.  

“Almost everybody is growing maize [corn], everybody is consuming maize. It’s made into a very thick porridge for the dinner time and into a less thick porridge for the breakfast time,” said Bruce Campbell, director of the climate change and agriculture program at CGIAR, a global food research organization.  

“You can get a vision of what happens with any impact on maize if you go back to 2008 when something like 1 million people in rural areas, 4 million in urban areas, were food insecure.”

Corn prices shot up 60 percent leading to food riots. The social fabric of Kenya began to fray. That corn shortage was caused by failed short-term rains combined with previous harsh seasons. Global economic factors, such as fuel prices, also contributed to the price rise.

Campbell said as the climate warms, incidents like 2008 could become more regular in Kenya.

“Undoubtedly, one does have a vision going forward of price increases both progressively as well as many more spikes in relation to extreme events.”

Extreme events range from drought on the one hand to flash flooding on the other. As to when these changes could become the new normal, Campbell can’t say when exactly for sure. No one can.  But he thinks it could be much more difficult to grow corn in Kenya by 2050.

But Campbell said the good news is that farmers are very adaptable

“They’re always adapting to price signals by changing crops, or to weather signals, perhaps by planting at different times of the year.”

But shifting the growing season by a few weeks… that’s the easy part. Campbell says in some areas in Kenya, corn won’t grow at all.

“And in those circumstances, you’re going to have to change completely the farming system, perhaps to crops which are much less familiar. For example, cassava is very temperature resistant.”  

Cassava root is a good source of carbohydrates. But it’s hardly as tasty or flexible as corn. Kenyans would survive, but eating cassava would be a huge shift in diet.

But Campbell has another reason for hope in Kenya.

“They seem to be taking climate change really seriously. They’ve put in place national adaptation strategies. On the ground, we’ve implemented the so-called 'climate smart villages' where farmers are trialling new varieties of crops. So right from the ground level up to the government level, I think people are thinking about what needs to happen in the future, so that’s very positive.”

Of course, there’s only so much they can do in Kenya. If we, the global community, continue to emit increasing amounts of greenhouse gasses, the planet will continue to warm.

The IPCC report says the changes ahead will help agriculture in some places. But on the whole, the changes will be bad news for the global food system.  

Campbell takes the pessimistic view: By 2050, he says no adaptation strategies will work in some already-marginal agricultural areas. In those places, you just won’t be able to grow anything.


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