Catholic Relief Services warns climate change poses dangers to African farming

Catholic Relief Services warns climate change poses dangers to African farming

A young girl is pictured in a file photo in the village of Chimutu, Malawi, carrying her younger sibling on her back. (Credit: Jennifer Hardy/Catholic Relief Services via CNS.)

Catholic Relief Services, the overseas development arm of the U.S. bishops, says that erosion, soil fertility depletion, and competition between herders and farmers are hurting agriculture on the continent.

YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Climate change is affecting farming in many parts of Africa, making it unpredictable and uncertain.

Catholic Relief Services, the overseas development arm of the U.S. bishops, says that erosion, soil fertility depletion, and competition between herders and farmers are hurting agriculture on the continent.

“There have been many efforts to better support small-scale farmers to drastically increase their productivity and we must do more,” said Kim Pozniak, senior director of global communication for CRS.

“This includes creating more equitable access to resources that many people in the U.S. might take for granted, such as high-quality seeds, labor-saving technologies like tractors, and even land itself,” she told Crux.

“Women farmers often can’t own the land they farm and their access to information and technology is severely limited compared to men. All vulnerable farmers – especially women– need better access to capital as well as accurate and reliable weather information to inform planting,” Pozniak said.

In her conversation with Crux, Pozniak also spoke about the Oct. 9 announcement that the United Nations World Food Program had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

“No one entity can resolve global hunger, and the World Food Program works with other partners to address the needs of millions of hungry people,” she said.

“Catholic Relief Services is central to World Food Program’s mission in South Sudan and has been a valued partner since 2014. Our WFP-supported projects reach nearly half a million people in South Sudan. Just this year, our goal is to deliver $37 million worth of food and nutrition support, which means reaching one out of every 10 people who are in need of food assistance in the country,” Pozniak said.

Following are excerpts of her interview.

Crux: CRS has welcomed the Nobel Peace Prize conferred on the World Food Program. What has it done to deserve the award?

Pozniak: No one entity can resolve global hunger, and the World Food Program works with other partners to address the needs of millions of hungry people. The Nobel committee also noted that it awarded the prize because food assistance doesn’t just solve hunger but is an important cornerstone of stability and peace.

CRS recently issued a statement saying conflict, climate change and the spread of COVID-19 “have led to a tsunami of need.” Can you explain?

Hunger has been on the rise since 2014, largely due to the increasing impacts of violent conflict and climate change. The World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization  released a report documenting some of the main drivers of hunger in 2019, which included economic upheaval, conflict, and extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent with global warming. COVID-19 is now causing more hunger as an increasing number of families are being pushed into poverty because they can’t work due to movement restrictions and stay-at-home orders. What’s more, governments are less able to mobilize responses to pest outbreaks like fall army worm and desert locusts that threaten staple crops. As a result, the World Bank projects that COVID 19 could push more than 100 million people into extreme poverty.

You mention that the WFP has been partnering with CRS in countries like Sudan and South Sudan. What does that partnership entail?

Catholic Relief Services is central to World Food Program’s mission in South Sudan and has been a valued partner since 2014. Our WFP-supported projects reach nearly half a million people in South Sudan. Just this year, our goal is to deliver $37 million worth of food and nutrition support, which means reaching one out of every 10 people who are in need of food assistance in the country

Africa has a disproportionate share of hungry people with more than 257 million people not having enough to eat. Paradoxically, Africa also has around 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land, roughly 60 percent of the global total. Why this discrepancy?

There have been many efforts to better support small-scale farmers to drastically increase their productivity and we must do more. This includes creating more equitable access to resources that many people in the U.S. might take for granted, such as high-quality seeds, labor-saving technologies like tractors, and even land itself.

Women farmers often can’t own the land they farm and their access to information and technology is severely limited compared to men. All vulnerable farmers – especially women– need better access to capital as well as accurate and reliable weather information to inform planting.

But even if all of these efforts are improved, farming in many parts of Africa is becoming more unpredictable and uncertain. Even in the places that are cultivated, erosion, soil fertility depletion, and competition between herders and farmers are common. Climate change and poor resource management threaten to make these problems worse. For example, in Ethiopia we’ve seen how the clearing of forests, highlands and shrub lands for agriculture has altered the natural environment, impacted water systems, resulted in the loss of vegetation cover, and led to severe soil erosion. In the wake of this, overstressed croplands have become far less productive, leaving communities that depend on these resources unable to grow food, raise livestock or source adequate amounts of water.

The good news is that in Ethiopia, Madagascar, and elsewhere, we find that it is possible to work with communities to address these problems by using practices that sustainably increase yields while restoring degraded lands.

What should be the policy focus be in Africa so that fertile land can be used for the good of the continent?

WFP focuses primarily on emergency food assistance, and like CRS and others, focuses on strengthening people’s resilience to conflict and extreme weather.

Emergency food assistance is critical but at the same time, we also have to focus on longer-term development. CRS’s approach, for example, links sustainable land management to food security and more job opportunities, especially in rural areas.

Climate modeling has shown that farmers working with poor soil quality lose more income in the face of climate change compared to farmers working on fertile land. Restoring degraded soils is a critical, low-cost solution that can mitigate devastating losses due to climate change by reducing erosion, and improving moisture retention and soil fertility. But we need to apply these solutions on a much larger scale for the sake of farmers and the health of the land they depend on.

Latest Stories