The interlinkage between climate change and the food system in Africa

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By Dr Wegayehu Fitawek – Postdoctoral fellow, Future Africa Sustainable Food Systems Research Chair

The interlinkage between climate change and the food system is significant and complex. Climate change affects the food system in various ways including the impact on water availability, and in turn, the food system contributes to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation and pollution.

Climate change leads to altered weather patterns, such as an increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like droughts, floods, and heat waves. Since 2022, floods have occurred in Nigeria, Chad, and other parts of Africa; devastating drought has affected the Horn of Africa, including countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya; and severe storms have impacted Southern African countries, including Madagascar, Mozambique, and Malawi. Rising temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns can affect crop yields and quality. Some crops may experience reduced productivity due to heat stress, while others may suffer from increased pests and diseases. Livestock can also face health challenges due to heat stress and changes in the availability of suitable grazing land. These events lead to food shortages and price volatility, as has been seen in the Horn of Africa, which has been grappling with food shortages for decades, with millions of people currently facing acute hunger. Disruptions in the food system, such as crop failures or reduced access to food, can lead to increased food insecurity and malnutrition, particularly among vulnerable populations. Limited access to nutritious foods can exacerbate health problems.

Most of the available studies have placed greater emphasis on the impact of climate change on food systems. Only a few studies have focused on the impact of food systems on climate change. However, the various food systems stages such as production, processing, distribution, and consumption all have a significant impact on climate change. For instance, food systems significantly contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Agricultural-related activities – including livestock production, food waste, land-use change, and fertiliser use – account for a significant portion of global GHG emissions. Livestock, particularly cattle, produce methane – a potent greenhouse gas. Agricultural expansion, often driven by the demand for food, contributes to deforestation and land degradation. In turn, deforestation releases carbon dioxide stored in trees and reduces the planet's capacity to absorb GHGs. It also diminishes biodiversity and disrupts ecosystems, which further contributes to climate change. Food systems also contribute to climate change through significant food waste and losses. When food is wasted, the resources used to produce it, such as land, water, and energy, are also wasted. Additionally, decomposing food waste in landfills produces methane, contributing to GHG emissions.

My postdoctoral research for the Climate, Land, Agriculture, and Biodiversity (CLAB-Africa) project – which falls under the Future Africa (FA) Sustainable Food Systems Research Chair (FA-SFS) – aims to assess the impact of climate change on food systems in Africa. Under this project, I have conducted a study using the PRISMA approach and systematic literature review techniques to collect and analyse climate-change and food-systems literature.

Africa has been substantially impacted by natural disasters, which are set to increase in severity and frequency. According to the Global Center on Adaptation 2023 report on climate risk in Africa, from January 2021 to September 2022, approximately 52 million people (around 4% of the African population) were impacted by climate change either through drought or floods. As in many developing countries, food systems in African countries are particularly vulnerable to climate extremes and shifts in weather patterns, as food production largely depends on rain-fed agriculture and pastoralism.

As shown in the figure below, the preliminary findings of the study reveal that the publication of papers on climate change and food-systems-related topics is increasing. This is because climate change as well as food systems are viewed as increasingly relevant topics.

                                                                   

Publishing trends for climate and food systems papers (2010 to July 2023)

 

Southern Africa was the most frequently researched focus area compared to other regions in Africa for climate and food systems-related research, followed by Western and Eastern Africa. Northern and Central Africa were the least researched regions. Most of the research published in journal articles was conducted in South Africa, followed by Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Kenya. Interestingly, East African countries, particularly Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and South Sudan, are suffering the most as a result of the climate crises, including heatwaves, severe droughts, and floods. However, limited research has been done on the impact of climate change and food systems in these countries. 

 

Reviewed papers by region (percentage of papers) and country (number of papers)

Addressing the interlinkage between climate change and the food system requires integrated approaches which consider climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. These may include sustainable agricultural practices, such as climate-smart agriculture, agroforestry, conservation agriculture, and improved livestock management techniques. Additionally, reducing food waste, promoting efficient food distribution systems, and shifting towards more plant-based diets can contribute to mitigating climate-change impacts on the food system.

The research findings will provide valuable evidence regarding the existing research gaps on the interlinkage between climate change and food systems in Africa. Researchers and policymakers must prioritise and emphasise conducting extensive research to comprehensively understand how climate change and food systems are interconnected. This emphasis on further investigation will help bridge knowledge gaps and enable evidence-based decision-making in addressing the challenges of climate change and promoting sustainable food systems in Africa.