Southern Africa is undergoing the worst drought in more than three decades. More than 30 million people in South Africa, Malawi, and my home country Zimbabwe are facing hunger.
While this year’s drought is largely attributed to the El Nino effect, rains have been increasingly erratic over the past two decades.
This could be the new normal as climate change models forecast less rainfall and more extreme weather for much of East and Southern Africa.
Moreover, experts project that we may be entering a time of global weather uncertainty, or a “dark age”.
Recently I have seen numerous images of smallholder farmers standing helplessly next to wilted crops, dying cattle, and sun-scorched earth.
Having grown up on a small farm in rural Zimbabwe, I know full well how mother nature can destroy livelihoods for one of the world’s most vulnerable populations — smallholder farmers. I also recognise the look on many of those farmers’ faces — helplessness.
Yet, the narrative does not always have to end badly. Plant breeders, working through publicly funded research institutes, are developing new crop varieties with traits that allow them to withstand extreme weather — and not just drought, but also flooding, and frost.
People like me who work in agriculture call them “climate-smart” crops, because they offer a fast and affordable way for farmers to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change.
For a number of reasons, such as restrictive seed laws and government monopolies, lack of money and a limited number of rural seed outlets, many smallholder farmers in Africa still rely on seed from outdated seed varieties saved over many generations.
That may sound quaintly self-reliant. But actually, most of these saved seeds are for crops that long ago became vulnerable to pests and disease and produce poor yields even when the rains do come.
Less than 30 percent of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa use improved seed that has recently undergone a formal breeding process.
But it does not have to be that way.
Consider the Drought-Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project, which was launched in 2007 and has been implemented in 13 African countries.
This partnership of national and international agricultural research institutions has to date released about 200 distinct drought-tolerant maize varieties.
The new varieties are bred to match growing conditions in a particular region and, along with drought tolerance, their yields are equal to or higher than other commercially available varieties.
In other words, they offer some protection against drought without sacrificing yield.
Farmers are noticing the difference and voting with their wallets. DTMA varieties have been adopted in each of the 13 target countries.
In Nigeria and Zambia, two of the drought-tolerant varieties had become the most popular commercial varieties by 2013. This is especially impressive given how slowly most smallholder farmers adopt new varieties.
Breeders are also working on the other extreme, developing crops for when climate change produces heavy rains.
The International Rice Research Institute has developed rice varieties that can withstand being submerged under water for two weeks.
Rice varieties with the so-called “scuba” gene are currently being grown by more than five million farmers in Asia. The trait is now being transferred into popular varieties in Africa.
For legumes, increased precipitation often results in root rot — a disease that significantly lowers yields.
The Pan-African Bean Research Alliance has released more than 450 new bean varieties since 1996. All of these varieties were bred to be more resilient to extreme weather while offering higher yielding and better nutrition than their ancestors.
Farmers planting the improved bean varieties in Rwanda have seen yields rise 53 percent, while productivity among farmers using the beans in Uganda has increased by about 60 percent.
For the sceptics, it should be noted that none of the technologies cited above has anything to do with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Moreover, they were all produced by public research institutions and commercialised by small, locally owned seed companies.
From subsistence farming to surplus
The benefits of improved seed are not new. Growing up in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe during the 1980s, rain was both abundant and consistent.
For many families in my village — including mine — the adoption of hybrid maize varieties transformed rural livelihoods from mere subsistence to surplus production. I owe my education, and consequent escape from poverty, to improved seed varieties.
Nothing can fully protect crops from extreme weather. Crops still need water to grow, but not too much of it. Climate-smart seed can reduce the impact of extreme weather, but it cannot eliminate it.
Further, smallholder farmers in Africa face many other challenges, such as depleted soils, limited access to extension services, high post-harvest losses and poor access to markets. Those problems cannot be solved by improved seed alone.
However, improved seed offers perhaps the cheapest way for farmers to adapt to climate change because farmers can use the seed without any need for additional training.
Moreover, while most agricultural technologies favour big commercial farms, improved seed is scale-neutral — it can be used with the same efficiency on big or small farms.
It is wrong to imagine that African farmers are reluctant to adopt the new breed of climate smart crops. With rapid uptake of mobile phones, Africa has demonstrated an appetite for adopting useful technologies.
Yet, while almost every farmer has a mobile phone, the continent lags behind in an area that is most critical for survival — agricultural productivity.
We live in a fast-changing world. All farmers now have to produce more food and fibre with fewer natural resources than they had in the past — while facing new challenges from extreme weather, along with an increase in plant pests and diseases.
These challenges are particularly hard on smallholder farmers, which is why they need to be equipped with effective, affordable technologies that are easy to use.
For small farmers — especially those facing extreme weather changes, it doesn’t get much easier than improved seed.
Edward Mabaya is an agricultural economist and Associate Director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture & Development. — Al Jazeera
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