Climate change, Food Security and Nigeria
By Dr. Rose Gidado
In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC, warned that climate change impacts on food and agriculture could be very severe unless there are rapid reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.
Currently, 70% of global agriculture is rain-fed, so is at the mercy of changing weather patterns and rainfall intensity. There is evidence that heat waves have doubled in some continental areas, that more rainfall is coming in heavy events, and that this is combined with a drying trend that is especially severe in sub-tropical regions.
Currently, food insecure regions such as sub-Saharan Africa are expected to bear the brunt of climate change impacts while having the least capacity for adaptation.
The IPCC warned that climate impacts would likely hold back efforts to reduce childhood malnutrition, hampering the world’s efforts to meet the SDGs, which set a target for ending hunger and “all forms of malnutrition” by 2030. The SDGs are clear that an important challenge to help achieve this elimination of hunger is to “double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular, women”.
It is clear that agriculture must change and modernise to meet these challenges and targets. Currently, productivity in sub-Saharan smallholder agriculture is extremely low due to shortage of inputs, lack of access to investment and reliance on unimproved seed varieties.
This makes the poorest farmers, already the most vulnerable to shifting climate, least able to adapt. Already there is evidence in Nigeria that social conflicts (for example the Boko Haram conflict in the North east and Lake Chad area) are exacerbated by desertification and competition over declining resources as water supplies decrease.
Without improving agricultural productivity, the outlook is poor and conflicts and malnutrition may even increase as desertification worsens across large swathes of Nigeria.
One of the most promising approaches to tackle these combined challenges is the use of agricultural biotechnology. This takes many forms, from conventional breeding accompanied by ‘marker-assisted selection’, gene editing and transgenic crops.
One area of interest currently is addressing micronutrient deficiencies such as vitamin A deficiency using biofortification. Biofortified cassava with orange flesh containing higher levels of beta-carotene is currently in the initial stages of deployment by HarvestPlus, with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Other crops fortified with zinc and iron are also in the pipeline.
To address climate change more directly crops may need genetic improvements in order to have higher thermal tolerance, so to continue to yield even during heat waves. Drought-tolerance is also an important trait. In East Africa, the so-called ‘Water-Efficient Maize for Africa’ (WEMA) varieties are currently in field trials in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa, while conventional drought-tolerance traits are already benefiting farmers.
In Nigeria, rice is an important staple crop along with cassava. Supported by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, the NEWEST rice project in West Africa was expanded to include a Nigerian component in 2014. This ‘Nitrogen Efficient, Water Efficient, Salt Tolerant’ rice is a multi-trait climate-smart crop. Water efficiency allows higher production in droughts, while salt-tolerant enables salinized land to still be cultivated. Nitrogen efficiency allows farmers to use less fertiliser, saving money and reducing GHG emissions from nitrogen oxides.
Climate change is also exacerbating pest and disease outbreaks. Cassava is affected increasingly by viral diseases, for which improved varieties are currently under development with African and international stakeholders.
Transgenic cassava aimed at combating cassava brown streak virus is under development in East Africa, centred on Uganda. Banana diseases are also increasing, in particular, banana bacterial wilt, for which a resistant cultivar is under development in Kenya and Uganda. In Nigeria and Ghana, Bt cowpea includes an insect-resistance gene: cowpea is an important protein crop, but tends to be infested with a pest called maruca. Bt varieties will not need insecticide treatment and will yield better harvests.
Unfortunately, in Nigeria especially, various NGOs fiercely oppose agricultural modernisation and the dissemination of improved crop varieties to small farmers. These NGOs spread conspiracy theories: recently Nigerian newspapers carried an allegation that vitamin A-enriched cassava was ‘GMO’, which was presented as something fearful and dangerous. (In reality the cassava is conventionally bred.)
They have also alleged that Monsanto is purposefully spreading diseases in order to steal Nigerian agriculture, and that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aims to sterilise Africans. These conspiracy theories are dangerous because they undermine social and political support for agricultural improvements, and deprive smallholder farmers of access to innovation.
The consensus on the reality of climate change, supported by 97% of scientists, is paralleled by the consensus about the safety of genetic modification in crop plants. Recent reports by scientific bodies such as the US National Academy of Sciences and the African Science Academies underline this consensus.
In order for both climate change adaptation and mitigation to be successful, biotechnology will need to be employed in agriculture. Conventional breeding alone will not enable farmers to use drought-tolerant, disease and insect-resistant and higher-yielding varieties that are needed to feed an increasing human population.
However, to be successful, biotechnology in developing countries such as Nigeria requires high-level political support in order to combat anti-science advocacy from NGOs whose ideological agenda purports to defend smallholder farmers at the same time as denying them the tools to adapt to climate change and eliminate food insecurity.