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Farming’s Climate-Changed Future
September 28, 2015

A hand spread over dry, cracked earth (Julien Behal/PA Wire)
A hand spread over dry, cracked earth.

Agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa — which employs 65 percent of Africa’s labor force and accounts for 32 percent of its gross domestic product — has looked the same for generations: a majority of smallholder farmers growing crops and raising livestock on land they use to both feed their families and earn their living. But with the effects of climate change already being felt across the continent, those who want to continue to earn their living through farming will need to adapt to the realities of the effects of climate change.

A report from the World Bank forecasts a 4 degrees Celsius global warming by the end of the century, with the sea level rising up to 100 centimeters. Droughts are expected to increase in central and southern Africa, along with unprecedented extremes of heat. The same report predicts increased annual precipitation in the Horn of Africa and parts of East Africa that will increase the risk of flooding. With 96 percent of cropland in Africa being rain-fed, the continent is dependent on the climate. And the climate is changing.

“The main people affected by climate change in my country are small farmers,” said Aicha Sako, a 2015 Mandela Washington Fellow from Mali who works on climate adaptation strategies. Sako says that practices such as choosing crops than can adapt to longer rainfalls, crop diversification and landscape mapping (determining different soil types and how they can be used most efficiently) will be important to small farmers’ survival.

Studies show that crops such as maize, sorghum and millet are vulnerable to the elevated levels of carbon dioxide that climate change will bring. Plants such as wheat, rice, cassava and yam, however, are more resistant to elevated carbon-dioxide levels — and in some cases will even have a positive response to those conditions.

“Farmers need to think about which crops they can use, where they use them and when,” said Sako, “to save energy and make their businesses sustainable.”