Researchers call for regional approaches to deal with high food prices

Malawi, Nr Dedza, Khulungira village

Researchers in eastern and southern Africa are calling for a new regional and integrated approach to address high food prices associated with global food shortages. They are doing this to help prevent a repeat of the global high food price crisis of three years ago.

Under the leadership of the Association for Strengthening Agriculture Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA), a regional body that seeks to transform agriculture and improve livelihoods, a team of researchers from key national, regional and international organizations in eastern and southern Africa (ESA) have determined that a ‘regionally coordinated response . . .  is potentially more effective in responding to the food price crisis than individual country responses.’

This is one of the key findings from a 2009 study that investigated food-price changes in the national and regional markets in eastern and southern Africa, which would provide an ‘evidence base for effective policy action.’

Joseph Karugia led a core team of researchers who were coordinated by the Regional Strategic Analysis and Knowledge Support System-East and Central Africa (ReSAKSS-EA), which is based in Nairobi, Kenya, at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Karugia says that ‘Regional blocks can become effective avenues for policy creation and implementation because they offer a much wider and stronger platform to address the challenges posed by the global food price crisis and to exploit the opportunities that high food prices may offer.’

Between 2007 and 2008, most countries in the region (and across the globe) experienced a rise in food prices that threatened the livelihoods of many of the region’s poor. Causes of the rise in prices were attributed to rising incomes and growing uses of food grains for bio-fuel production and animal feeds. In addition, an increasing world population and urbanization, coupled with high agricultural input prices, reduced world stocks of food staples and exports. Declining agricultural resources also contributed to the low supply of food.

Unlike past food-price spikes, such as those in the mid-1990s, where only a few commodities were affected, the recent rise in prices saw substantial increases in the price of the world’s key cereals, oilseeds and dairy and meat products.

For resource-poor farmers and consumers in Africa, high prices translated into higher costs of living occasioned by the increase in the prices of basic foods and staples such as maize, rice and wheat. Prices of different foods across many countries in the region went up by between 11 and 50 per cent between March 2007 and March 2008.

In the wake of the crisis, ASARECA brought a team of key researchers together in a study to find out ‘the magnitude and implications of food prices’ in the region. ‘One of our key aims was to come up with practical short-, medium- and long-term options for governments and other stakeholders for addressing the problem posed by the crisis,’ Karugia says.

The researchers analyzed trends and outlooks in individual countries as well as the region and presented evidence about the regional food situation. They also explored connections between high domestic food prices in this period and global food prices and examined regional and national dimensions of food-price increases and how they related to food security in the region.

From the study findings, presented in a paper, ‘Responding to the food crisis in eastern and southern Africa: policy options for national and regional action’, researchers argue that the considerable scope offered by regional blocks such as the East Africa Community (EAC), the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA), and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) provides an opportunity to create and implement regional policies and strategies to improve food production, distribution and availability in ways that individual countries could not handle alone.

The findings of this research suggest that new ways of approaching food distribution can improve food security in the region by for example, enabling improved regional trade that would allow easier movement of foods, especially ‘non-tradeable’ commodities such as bananas, shipped from countries where they are readily available to countries where consumers face food shortages. This model of food distribution could effectively deal with challenges that result from failure of staple crops such as maize. This way, the report says ‘the income effect of rising food prices could be dampened if it is relatively easy for the household to substitute one staple food whose price is already rising with a cheaper food product that is nutritious and as easy to handle as the previous one.’

Findings from this study provide thought-provoking perspectives useful to policymakers and governments in managing the frequent food crises in the region.

The findings highlight the important role of regional trade, Domestic food prices are, to a large extent, determined by local and regional demand-and-supply conditions; if policies on informal trade were improved, this region’s food security would also improve. The researchers note that an inability of households to find alternative cheaper nutritious foods would lead to ‘lower resource allocation towards non-food items’. This would then affect other sectors, such as education, health care and water and sanitation, with the ‘eventual deterioration of human capital and overall household welfare.’

Although rising food prices are contributing to food price inflation, the researchers note that the domestic markets in the ESA region are resilient and are not always directly affected by global events. Arguing that the best way to address the food price crisis is to do so regionally, they say policies should aim to ‘increase household purchasing power, have no negative impact on food supply response and should not reduce income of poor food sellers.’

This study calls for paying renewed attention to the agricultural sector, which is essential for improving production. It also notes that high food prices provide incentives to the private sector to invest in the agricultural sector. However, productivity increases will require significant and sustained investments in agricultural research and extension, as well as development of agricultural and general infrastructure along with credit and risk-management instruments.

The complete findings of this research can be accessed on http://mahider.ilri.org/bitstream/10568/184/1/resakss%20workingpaper27.pdf

For more information please visit the websites of ResaKSS and ASARECA.

New study warns that climate change could create agricultural winners and losers in East Africa

While predicting highly variable impacts on agriculture by 2050, experts show that with adequate investment the region can still achieve food security for all

Forage Diversity field on ILRI Addis campus

As African leaders prepare to present an ambitious proposal to industrialized countries for coping with climate change in the part of the world that is most vulnerable to its impacts, a new study points to where and how some of this money should be spent. Published in the peer-reviewed journal Agricultural Systems, the study projects that climate change will have highly variable impacts on East Africa’s vital maize and bean harvests over the next two to four decades, presenting growers and livestock keepers with both threats and opportunities.

Previous estimates by the study’s authors projected moderate declines in the production of staple foods by 2050 for the region as a whole but also suggested that the overall picture disguises large differences within and between countries. The new findings provide a more detailed picture than before of variable climate change impacts in East Africa, assessing them according to broadly defined agricultural areas.

‘Even though these types of projections involve much uncertainty, they leave no room for complacency about East Africa’s food security in the coming decades,’ said the lead author of the new study, Philip Thornton of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which is supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). ‘Countries need to act boldly if they’re to seize opportunities for intensified farming in favored locations, while cushioning the blow that will fall on rural people in more vulnerable areas.’

The researchers simulated likely shifts in cropping, using a combination of two climate change models and two scenarios for greenhouse gas emissions, together with state-of-the-art models for maize and beans, two of the region’s primary staple foods.

In the mixed crop-livestock systems of the tropical highlands, the study shows that rising temperatures may actually favor food crops, helping boost output of maize by about half in highland ‘breadbasket’ areas of Kenya and beans to much the same degree in similar parts of Tanzania. Meanwhile, harvests of maize and beans could decrease in some of the more humid areas, under the climate scenarios used in the study. Across the entire region, production of both crops is projected to decline significantly in drylands, particularly in Tanzania.

‘The emerging scenario of climate-change winners and losers is not inevitable,’ said ILRI director general Carlos Seré. ‘Despite an expected three-fold increase in food demand by 2050, East Africa can still deliver food security for all through a smart approach that carefully matches policies and technologies to the needs and opportunities of particular farming areas.’

At the Seventh World Forum on Sustainable Development, held recently in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, African leaders announced a plan to ask the industrialized world to pay developing countries USD67 billion a year as part of the continent’s common negotiating position for December’s climate talks in Copenhagen.

The ILRI study analyzes various means by which governments and rural households can respond to climate change impacts at different locations. In Kenya, for example, the authors suggest that shifting bean production more to the cooler highland areas might offset some of the losses expected in other systems.

Similarly, Tanzania and Uganda could compensate for projected deficits in both maize and beans through increased regional trade. In the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), maize trade is already worth more than USD1 billion, but only 10 percent of it occurs within the region. As grain prices continue to rise in global markets, several East African countries will be well positioned to expand output of maize and beans for regional markets, thus reducing reliance on imports and boosting rural incomes.

Where crop yields are expected to decline only moderately because of climate change, past experience suggests that rural households can respond effectively by adopting new technologies to intensify crop and livestock production, many of which are being developed by various CGIAR-supported centres and their national partners.

Drought-tolerant maize varieties, for example, have the potential to generate benefits for farmers estimated at USD863 million or more in 13 African countries over the next 6 years, according to a new study carried out by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Meanwhile, new heat-tolerant varieties of productive climbing beans, which are traditionally grown in highlands, are permitting their adoption at lower elevations, where they yield more than twice as much grain as the bush-type beans grown currently, according to Robin Buruchara of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

In areas that face drastic reductions in maize and bean yields, farmers may need to resort to more radical options, such as changing the types of crops they grow (replacing maize, for example, with sorghum or millet), keeping more livestock or abandoning crops altogether to embrace new alternatives, such as the provision of environmental services, including carbon sequestration.

This latter option could become a reality under COMESA’s Africa Biocarbon Initiative, which is designed to tap the huge potential of the region’s diverse farmlands and other rural landscapes, ranging from dry grasslands to humid tropical forests, for storing millions of tons of carbon. The initiative offers African negotiators an appealing option in their efforts to influence a future climate change agreement.

‘If included in emissions payment schemes, this initiative could create new sources of income for African farmers and enhance their resilience to climate change,’ said Peter Akong Minang, global coordinator of the Alternatives to Slash-and-Burn (ASB) Programme at the World Agroforestry Centre. ‘Its broad landscape approach would open the door for many African countries to actively participate in, and benefit from, global carbon markets.’

‘Rural people manage their livelihoods and land in an integrated way that encompasses many activities,’ said Bruce Campbell, director of the CGIAR’s Challenge Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. ‘That’s why they need integrated options to cope with climate change, consisting of diverse innovations, such as drought-tolerant crops, better management of livestock, provision of environmental services and so forth.’

How rapidly and successfully East African nations and rural households can take advantage of such measures will depend on aggressive new investments in agriculture, CGIAR researchers argue. According to a recent study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), it will take about USD7 billion annually, invested mainly in rural roads, better water management and increased agricultural research, to avert the dire implications of climate change for child nutrition worldwide.

About 40 per cent of that investment would address the needs of sub-Saharan Africa, where modest reductions projected for maize yields in the region as a whole are expected to translate into a dramatic rise in the number of malnourished children by 2050. Thornton’s projections probably underestimate the impacts on crop production, because they reflect increasing temperatures and rainfall changes only and not greater variability in the weather and growing pressure from stresses like drought and insect pests.

‘Farmers and pastoralists in East Africa have a long history of dealing with the vagaries of the weather,’ said Seré. ‘But climate change will stretch their adaptive capacity beyond its limits, as recent severe drought in the region has made abundantly clear. Let’s not leave rural people to fend for themselves but rather invest significantly in helping them build a more viable future.’

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About ILRI:
The Africa-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) works at the crossroads of livestock and poverty, bringing high-quality science and capacity-building to bear on poverty reduction and sustainable development. ILRI is one of 15 centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). It has its headquarters in Kenya and a principal campus in Ethiopia. It also has teams working out of offices in Nigeria, Mali, Mozambique, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and China. www.ilri.org.

About the CGIAR: The CGIAR, established in 1971, is a strategic partnership of countries, international and regional organizations and private foundations supporting the work of 15 international Centers. In collaboration with national agricultural research systems, civil society and the private sector, the CGIAR fosters sustainable agricultural growth through high-quality science aimed at benefiting the poor through stronger food security, better human nutrition and health, higher incomes and improved management of natural resources. www.cgiar.org