Review of research and policies for climate change adaptation in the agriculture sector in Southern Africa

Date on source document: 
July 2014
Paul Mapfumo, Abdulai Jalloh and Sepo Hachigonta
AfricaInteract: Enabling research-to-policy dialogue for adaptation to climate change in Africa
Working paper 100
Future Agricultures

There is a growing and critical need for decision-makers at different levels in Africa, from local (community) to national and sub-regional scales, to develop matching response strategies and policies in order to reduce vulnerability and foster resilient livelihood systems on a sustainable basis. This document presents the main findings of a critical review conducted to examine the current evidence of research and policies on climate change adaptation in the agricultural sector in Southern Africa.

The review was commissioned under the AfricaInteract project, funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and coordinated by the West and Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development (CORAF/WECARD). With a specific focus on Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe, the desktop review was guided by three main objectives: i) to synthesise the major findings from agricultural research on climate change adaptation conducted in Southern Africa; ii) to identify research and policy gaps on climate change adaptation with a specific focus on Southern Africa’s agricultural sector; and iii) to identify key stakeholders and opportunities for climate change adaptation for the agricultural sector in Southern Africa. For the purposes of the study, agriculture was defined broadly to include not only crops and livestock, but also forestry and fisheries systems. Information was primarily drawn from available but limited refereed journal articles, official government documents and grey literature from reports and websites of diverse organisations practically addressing or actively engaged in debate on climate change issues in the Southern African region.

Drawing from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) definitions, the review first explores the concepts and understanding of adaptation, resilience and coping in the context of climate change. The study shows that Southern Africa is experiencing increasing climatic pressures in the agricultural sector, for which matching policies to support adaptation responses are urgently required. The sector supports 60-90% of national populations, who draw their livelihoods directly from climate-sensitive crop, livestock, forestry and fisheries systems. The region’s agriculture is dominated by smallholder farming, which contributes 60-66 percent of total production in countries such as Malawi and Zimbabwe. For example, smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe own about 80 percent of the national livestock herd. In South Africa, smallholder agriculture has traditionally received very little attention in national development policies. However, this has changed following a realisation of the sub-sector’s critical role in reducing vulnerability of rural communities to food insecurity as well as its potential to lessen the fiscal burden in rural development. It is clear that agriculture will continue to underpin major economic activities for regional countries, providing for food security, national employment and foreign exchange earnings into the foreseeable future. However, low and variable growth performance of the sector, against a growing farmbased population, raises major development concerns in the face of climate change. Major sources of climatic pressures in agriculture include increasing temperatures, shortening growing seasons and deteriorating rainfall distribution within seasons, as well as increasing frequencies of droughts. The region’s predominantly rain-fed agricultural sector traditionally suffers from lack of access to appropriate information, knowledge and improved production and processing technologies by different farmer categories. These multiple constraints may greatly limit the scope for climate change adaptation.

The available evidence indicates that smallholder farming communities are inherently the most vulnerable to the pending negative impacts of climate change, and are also less likely able to take advantage of any emerging opportunities due to resource constraints. The region’s smallholder agriculture hinges on rain-fed maize-based cropping systems, with sorghum and millets (collectively termed small grains) being prominent in drier agroecologies (less than 600 mm rainfall annually). Over 65 percent of current national agricultural earnings are derived from the crop production sub-sector, for which there is emerging evidence of risks from increased climate variability and change in breadbasket agroecologies. Based on current evidence, areas suitable for production of these staples cereals, particularly maize, are projected to shrink by 5-25 percent, and yet the region is already known to be chronically food insecure. Expansion in cropped area therefore explains much of the witnessed contributions of smallholders to national crop production. These challenges are aggravated by diminishing soil productivity and a decline in the natural resource base that has, hitherto, supported the poorer sections of rural and peri-urban communities. Productivity is critically low (e.g. under 0.8t/ha for maize) due to poor and declining fertility against low levels of external inputs use by farmers (e.g. fertiliser and improved seed). National governments have long struggled to develop effective agricultural policies that overcome the multiple constraints faced by farming communities, and current evidence suggest that climate change will present an extra load of challenges in the formulation of responsive development policy frameworks for sustainable intensification and diversification of current farming systems.

Analysis of documented evidence on climate change adaptation indicates that communities have drawn on indigenous knowledge systems, the strength of local institutions and traditional social safety nets to adapting to multiple stress factors including climate variability and change. However, there is limited empirical evidence on the robustness of these systems in supporting new forms of social collaborations and resolving conflicts arising from resource scarcity in the wake of climate change. Most of the farmers’ current responses to climatic shocks have been of a short-term nature, and often punctuated by external but temporal response measures such as food aid/relief programmes. Climate change impacts are likely to have ramifications beyond agriculture by influencing major areas of development that include: i) dynamics of rural-urban interconnections; ii) access and use patterns for major natural resource pools such as land, water and forests; iii) resource governance and social safety net systems within/across communities; iv) access to marketing and trading opportunities; and v) redefined approaches for addressing HIV/AIDS, among other diseases, in agriculture. Comprehensive policy frameworks are therefore required to expand climate change adaptation horizons beyond the boundaries of current farming systems. For example, as the risk of cropbased enterprises increase with deteriorating climatic conditions, there is evidence of farmers adapting through diversification into livestock. However, that sub-sector is also threatened by non-availability of feed resources, low animal productivity performance, emerging livestock pests/diseases, increasing water scarcity and heat stress.

There was evidence of multiple stresses characterising existing poverty traps for the predominantly rural communities, and challenges of chronic food insecurity. However, there is no evidence on how current agriculture and climate change policy frameworks are able to address these multiple stress factors against the increasing risk and uncertainty of agriculture as a source of climate change adaptation. There is evidence of a clear convergence of opinion from researchers, national and regional policymakers and farmers on the need to transform Southern Africa’s current agricultural systems in the face of climate change. Currently, the majority of farmers live beyond the reach of markets, yet agricultural development policies are hinged on principles of (assumed) market participation. Transformation of these subsistence farms into commercially oriented and market-driven production systems will effectively call for structural and process changes in knowledge systems, technology development and delivery, institutions and policies.

The review also revealed a dearth of empirical research evidence on current and future impacts of climate change and variability on agricultural production systems, and their implications on resilience of smallholder farming systems currently supporting the poorer and more vulnerable communities. Notably, there were indications of an increase in awareness about climate change issues by diverse stakeholders, including policymakers, over the past decade. However, lack of empirical evidence on the nature, magnitude and direction of impacts at local (community) and national scales will likely continue to haunt decision-making processes towards development of robust strategies and policies to support adaptation. There are also some knowledge gaps, and in some cases conflicting views in the grounding of theories, methodologies and knowledge applications by practitioners that are meant to inform decision-making processes. This may explain the current lack of clear policies on climate change adaptation in the agricultural sector in almost all regional countries including South Africa. There is an apparent disconnect between policy processes and realities at the grassroots, and therefore there is a general lack of consistency between the policies and technical interventions in the implementation plans. For example, the strong policy assertions in support of adaptation options such as development of irrigation and crop-livestock systems is not supported by calls for establishment of irrigation training institutions; crop and national livestock improvement centres; and/or fertiliser development institutions. One can therefore conclude that current national climate change policies represent steps in the right direction, but tend to be ‘business as usual’ and offer limited scope for implementation of appropriate adaptation options. The region’s agricultural sector will need to undergo major transformation processes in order to meet emerging demands for adaptation. This may entail changes in the types and forms of information, knowledge, technologies, resource regimes and institutions driving current production systems. There are still major knowledge gaps across disciplines on how local level changes in climatic factors (e.g. rainfall, temperature, humidity and air circulation patterns) influence the socio-ecological processes that underpin agricultural production systems across spatial and temporal scales.

One of the major conclusions of the study is that policymaking on climate change in Southern Africa is not necessarily constrained by lack of empirical evidence, but instead by the failure of policymakers to use available empirical evidence. This suggest that current failures in linking research to policy could be a major barrier to further research and development innovations for climate change adaptation. Evidence from limited climate change adaptation studies conducted with communities in the region revealed the importance of policy dialogue platforms as an integral part of research and development initiatives. Coupling of participatory action research (PAR), co-learning and innovation system approaches, involving communities, farmer organisations, public and private research and extension and policymakers among other stakeholders proved effective in linking research to policy.