A significant study found that instead of cultivating maize, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa should diversify their crop production by choosing crops that are more adaptable to climate change and provide adequate essential micronutrients for the population.
In the region, maize is a staple crop farmed and consumed in large amounts. The study, led by Dr. Stewart Jennings of the University of Leeds, contends that shifting the focus to fruits, vegetables, and crops like sorghum, millet, and cassava will increase the nation's nutrition security—that is, the availability of the micronutrients needed for optimal health.
According to the report, more food must be produced, and additional land will need to be used for agriculture unless yields are increased to previously unheard-of levels. There are currently 1.2 billion people living in Sub-Saharan Africa and the World Bank projects that by 2050, that number will increase by 740 million.
Farmers will need to increase the amount of food they cultivate since climate change will bring about more extreme weather, which will limit the kinds of crops that can be produced.
According to the experts, unless practical solutions for adjusting to climate change are found, the population could experience "food and nutrition insecurity." Any decision must take into account the necessity for crops to be nutrient-dense and to supply enough energy to support the population.
The study has highlighted the need to place nutrition at the heart of agricultural policy to avoid the long-term unintended consequence of failing to produce food that can deliver the nutritional needs of the population. Policy solutions focus only on increasing production of calories and adapting to be climate-smart, and there will likely be negative consequences for health through nutritionally poor diets.
Jennie Macdiarmid, Professor, Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen
The study was published in the journal Nature Food. It includes interviews with decision-makers and other players in the food and agriculture sectors in four sub-Saharan African nations: Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia. More than 50 researchers worked on the project.
“Agriculture and Nutrition Policies Can Sit in Siloes”
Utilizing the iFEED assessment methodology, the researchers looked at potential policy solutions to develop an agricultural system that can withstand climate change and produce enough food to satisfy the population's needs for both food and nutrition.
Too often, food, agriculture, and nutrition policies sit in siloes across different government departments. Also, this study provides holistic evidence that combines information on the environmental impacts of food system changes and the changes needed for population-level nutrition security. The research shows that action can be taken to adapt to climate change and improve nutrition security in sub-Saharan Africa.
Dr. Jennings, Research Fellow, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds
Stakeholders in every nation highlighted the main unknowns surrounding the food system's future. To help decision-makers in the agriculture and food industries make informed decisions, iFEED examines these uncertain futures and highlights important policy concerns. According to the scientists, a "transformative approach" or fundamental change in agriculture is required to take nutritional needs into account.
One alternative is to diversify into the cultivation of soybeans. Compared to maize, soybean crops are more resilient to the effects of climate change. A contributing author of the study, Dr. Ndashe Kapulu of the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute, has conducted studies to determine how soybeans might raise the revenue of small- and commercial-scale farmers.
From that, he found out, “Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa will better handle climate change and other stresses if they have more diverse food systems, such as the transition to soybean production in Zambia. As scientists, we need to generate enough evidence in our research to help make changes that support and guide actions to make the agrifood system more resilient.”
The nutritional value of meals could be enhanced by increasing the production and consumption of animal-based products in sub-Saharan Africa, but scientists caution that this region should not approach the unsustainable production levels observed in certain higher-income nations.
Increased consumption of animal-based products would result in higher greenhouse gas emissions, but experts think this would be acceptable considering that sub-Saharan Africa has relatively low greenhouse gas emissions and needs to lower the risk of nutritionally deficient meals.
Researchers from the University of Leeds, the University of Aberdeen, the Met Office, Chatham House, and FANPRAN participated in the study.
A database called iFEED was created, in part, by the University of Leeds as part of the CGIAR Initiative on Climate Resilience and the GCRF AFRICAP program. Its purpose is to assist decision-makers in implementing food system policies that are both nutrient-dense and climate change-resistant, thereby lowering the likelihood of food and nutrition insecurity.
Jennings, S., et al. (2024). Stakeholder-driven transformative adaptation is needed for climate-smart nutrition security in sub-Saharan Africa. Nature Food doi.org/10.1038/s43016-023-00901-y.