Big Trouble in Farmville

Melting glaciers and superstorms won't matter if the world can't feed itself. 


NGURDOTO, Tanzania — The snow-crest of Africa’s highest peak Mount Kilimanjaro glints fleetingly above a wooded ridge before being concealed in morning clouds. The landscape is surprisingly lush: banana, avocado, and coffee trees are flourishing under the shade of towering acacias and orange-blossomed flame trees, remnants of the forest which has been cleared to make room for the region’s growing population. My guide is Amani Peter, a thin-faced young farmer from Ngurdoto, a village perched on the slopes of Mount Meru near the northern Tanzanian city of Arusha. 

"My parent’s generation used to plant by the calendar in early-March," Peter says gesturing toward the green blades of maize poking up hopefully between clods of dark volcanic soil on his shamba, or small family farm. "But this year, the rains began in February, nearly a month early, and nobody knows when they will end, or if they will be sufficient."

Subsistence farmers like Amani Peter depend on steady and predictable rainfall to produce their crops. Yet nowadays the twice-yearly seasonal rains rarely arrive on schedule in East Africa, and in some years they do not come at all or are frustratingly sporadic: Violent cloudbursts often leading to floods and destructive soil erosion alternate with long, withering dry spells. Spikes of high temperatures, until recently unknown in this mile-high mountain area, have also prematurely wilted the corn.

Even more ominously, Peter’s family’s well — along with many others in the village — has just gone dry.

Welcome to climate change’s African front line. Food production all over the globe is in the crosshairs, but East Africa is the prime target. The impacts of climate change are already serious here, and expected to get a lot harsher in coming decades.

It is a story that has not been getting a lot of press in the West. While the public’s attention has focused on some of climate change’s more visibly dramatic impacts, like rising sea levels and the predicted increase in violent weather events, there has been relatively less discussion on the ways that it is poised to reshuffle the deck of global agriculture. In fact, the tectonic and often unpredictable changes in the environment threaten not only the food security of millions of people, they also pose risks to the economic development and political stability of East Africa, a region that has made significant progress in recent years, and other parts of the world.

The issue is expected to get top billing in the latest report by the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is slated to be released March 30 in Yokohama, Japan. The report, the second of three, synthesizes the work of hundreds of scientists worldwide and will examine the impacts of climate change on farming, the ecosystem, and the global economy. An advance copy of the report that was leaked to the press back in November warns that food security in much of the developing world will be directly affected by climate change. In it, researchers estimated that the price tag for climate change may run as high as 2 percent of global economic output — a whopping $1.4 trillion annually. Grain yields are projected to decline by 2 percent per decade, while demand will increase by 14 percent. The leaked report also predicts that food prices will rise sharply, leading to more hunger and political instability, especially in Asia and Africa.

International organizations are calling for concerted action to prepare for the looming crisis. "The heat is on. Now we must act," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in September, after the IPCC announced its finding that global warming is unequivocally the result of human actions. In the meantime, however, the way many local people are responding to the stark changes to their environments is causing problems, too.  Nearly half of Tanzania’s population of 48 million people depends on herding to survive, and after the 2009-10 drought that killed off 65 percent of the livestock in the country’s central region, many people are now struggling to grow crops in agriculturally marginal areas that were, until recently, devoted almost exclusively to grazing. Scant and erratic rainfall and the herders’ lack of knowledge about even basic agriculture, along with rising commodity prices from increased fuel and transportation costs, inflation, and high agricultural input prices, have threatened the food security of the Maasai — semi-nomadic herders that live in Tanzania and Kenya —  who exist on the fringes of the money economy even during the best of times.

"Climate scientists don’t yet have enough data to know with certainty what exactly is going to happen in the future with regional weather patterns," says Andrea Athanas, the Arusha-based program design manager for agriculture and energy at the African Wildlife Foundation. But the way that communities are adapting to recent changes, she says, is eroding the resilience of the ecosystem. 

Visiting a Maasai village provides a better sense of how people are coping with climate change including the tensions and trade-offs they must negotiate. On the way to Loiber Siret, a community of 5,700 people and over 30,000 head of livestock, we pass groups of zebras, wildebeests, and dark-splotched giraffes feeding alongside herds of domestic goat and cattle. We stop at a clearing in the thorn trees where community leaders have gathered. They’re meeting to mark out a water management area to protect the flow of their local river which rises out of some springs to the south of here. Village chairman Raphael Matinda is attempting to broker a compromise between competing interests, and the discussion of where to set the boundaries of the catchment area is remarkably polite given the high stakes for the community. During a break in the discussions, I ask Matinda why they need to protect their watershed. "Back in 1975," he recalls, "you used to have to take your shoes off to cross the river. There was lots of water flowing year round."

But the area has dried out a lot since then, and there is no doubt in his mind the cause is climate change. "The impact has been huge," says Matinda. "Our stream all-but-vanishes during the dry season now. We’ve lost a lot of the habitat, the papyrus, the rich vegetation, and many of the big fig trees, which used to grow here. It is also getting a lot hotter. Droughts are longer. We used to plant and we’d get a good crop; nowadays it is hit or miss."

Limiting grazing and agriculture will help safeguard the watershed from destructive erosion and runoff. It may also gradually allow the aquifer to replenish and bring the dying stream back to life. But giving up precious pasture for their animals is a steep price for these herders to pay, and it is clear that some are uncomfortable with the idea, while other press for a strict ban on grazing in critical areas. 

Laly Lichtenfeld and her husband Charles Trout, who jointly direct the U.S.-funded African People and Wildlife Fund, have been organizing seminars for locals in Loiber Siret and beyond on how to adapt food production to the increasingly tough conditions on the ground.* Lichtenfeld believes that aggressive measures to protect the water supply are worth the risk. "Waterholes dry up more quickly now," she tells me. "Permanent water sources are being overgrazed. In some cases, we’ve had livestock brought all the way down from Kenya during dry years." 

Other questions locals must contend with are whether they can afford to continue the nomadic open-grazing policies that allowed Maasai from Kenya to share their pastures with one another in times of need, and whether farmers need to turn from maize to other grains like sorghum and millet, which are more tolerant of heat and drought.

Discussions like these, about adjusting or even abandoning longstanding practices, are happening all over the world, as rural people struggle to adapt to rapid changes in their local climate. Not all regions will be negatively impacted, to be sure. Global warming may actually prove a boon in some temperate areas, for instance, where food production is more limited by cold than by heat. The tropics, however, are another story. "You can’t grow crops in a blast furnace," Bruce McCarl, a professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University told USA Today. And a blast furnace is precisely what many places in the Global South may become if current projections hold true.

In South Asia, as temperatures continue to warm, the Himalayan glaciers that feed the Indus and the Ganges — vital irrigation rivers — are melting rapidly. To make matters worse, over-pumping is also rapidly depleting groundwater from the region’s aquifers, and monsoon patterns are likely to shift and become less dependable, putting millions of farmers at risk. And in Southeast Asia, as sea levels rise, groundwater in large areas of the Mekong Delta is becoming too saline to grow rice. Extreme rain events and flooding as well as withering heat spikes have already led to significant crop losses throughout the region.

Parts of Africa are staring down suddenly expanding deserts. The Center for American Progress reports that "[d]rought and desertification across much of the Sahel — northern Nigeria, for example, is losing 1,350 square miles a year to desertification — have undermined agricultural and pastoral livelihoods," as well as contributed to massive flows of migrants into urban areas.

The United States is seeing worrisome changes, too. The Southwest is entering what some scientists are predicting will be a permanent hotter and drier phase, which will increasingly deplete groundwater, limit agriculture, and perhaps eventually threaten the water supply in urban areas like Phoenix and Los Angeles. California’s almonds, cherries, and apricots are not getting enough critical winter-chill time for the trees to properly flower and fruit. And parts of Texas that are becoming too dry to cultivate are reverting to rangeland for grazing cattle.

These climatic shifts come at an inopportune time, when agricultural experts are calling for a "second green revolution" to boost food production in order to eliminate hunger and prepare for future population growth. The United Nations estimates, conservatively, that there will be 9 billion humans on the planet by 2050 (there are currently 7 billion), with the fastest growth occurring in sub-Saharan Africa and less developed parts of Asia. While food production has been rising globally, the rates of increase have slowed to a crawl in recent years as the world runs out of new sources of arable land, fuel prices rise, access to fresh water and other natural resources grow more strained, and climate change puts a brake on agricultural growth.

Nobody can say for sure just how severely will farming be affected, because there is no way to know yet how much temperatures will rise; most estimates vary between 2 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, with vastly different consequences at the low end and high end of that scale. Yet a general "rule of thumb," Lester Brown, the founder of the influential eco-think tank the Worldwatch Institute, told the Harvard Crimson, "is that for each one-degree rise in Celsius temperature, we can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. So it makes it more difficult to expand production, particularly when it comes at a time when water shortages are everywhere."

Brown warns that the world faces a looming "food crisis," caused partly by the mounting stress of climate change, and partly by other developments, such as the conversion of farmland to non-food uses (biofuels, for instance, and grain to feed livestock that supply growing meat markets in China and elsewhere). He predicts that prices for wheat, corn, and other basic staples will soar beyond the level that many in the developing world can afford to pay for them. 

Scholars have argued that this is already happening. Some assert that a sudden sharp rise in the global price for wheat — caused at least in part by climate-change-related droughts in China and Ukraine — helped to spark the Arab Spring. And continuing high prices, they say, are likely fueling the ongoing troubles in Egypt and Syria, both top wheat-importing countries.

Costs are also rising dangerously in East Africa, including in Tanzania. Between 2011 and 2013, prices for maize, the source for the staple porridge ugali, nearly doubled. Similar price rises were reported for rice and beans, millet, sweet potatoes, meat, and milk.

No place on earth will be spared the cost of global warming. But the irony is that developing countries like Tanzania, which are least responsible for spewing the greenhouse gases that are heating up the atmosphere, are the ones that will be handed the lion’s share of the bill for climate change. That future is already becoming a lived reality here in Tanzania. "People may not know all of the scientific details," Matinda says, taking a break from negotiations to protect the watershed, "but they know about climate change from their own experience."

*Correction, March 27, 2014: This article originally misspelled Laly Lichtenfeld’s name and the name of her organization, the African People and Wildlife Fund. It referred to her as Laly Litchtenfeld, at the Africa People and Wildlife Fund. (Return to reading.)

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