Climate Change and Food Security The Threats and Hopes for Nigeria

We’ve gotten used to the looks on farmers’ faces by now—shaking heads, looking to the sky as if for an explanation, frowning worriedly. The rains aren’t the same as they used to be, they tell us. One no longer knows when the rainy season has truly started, when one can begin planting. It is hotter in harmattan season than it used to be. These changes are attributed to various causes, depending on the farmers’ level of education and cultural context—deforestation, an angry God, or the greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere by a global industrial civilization. Yet, old and young, male and female, formally educated or not, the changes are being noticed.

Farmers know through experience what our complex climate models and the data are also telling us: the effects of climate change have arrived in Nigeria, the country with the world’s fastest growing population, which is already struggling to feed itself. As scientists (an ecologist and an economist) working with the USAID-funded Feed the Future Nigeria Agricultural Policy Project, we are working with farmers, policy makers, and other stakeholders to understand and propose solutions to address the numerous impacts of climate change on Nigerian agriculture and food security. These impacts are more diverse and insidious than one might realize at first, and the task is daunting. Through collaboration, shared learning, and developing a broad arsenal of solutions, we believe progress can be made.

Most Nigerians are well aware that the agricultural sector has historically been neglected in favour of petroleum. A poorly performing agricultural sector limits the domestic supply of food, directly affecting its availability and affordability. As a major employer of labor, low productivity in Nigerian agriculture also implies low incomes, high poverty rates and limited purchasing power; re-enforcing the direct link between agricultural productivity and all four dimensions of food security (i.e. availability, accessibility, stability and utilizations).

The reasons for low agricultural productivity are fairly well known: limited availability and high cost of good quality inputs such as fertilizer, seed, chemicals and medicines for livestock; poor support infrastructure; weak extension services; underdeveloped rural input, output and financial markets; substandard rural roads; numerous unsuccessful policies and programs.

All of these factors result in troublingly low yields of staple crops. Despite numerous strategies to increase rice production and favorable rice ecologies, average rice yields in Nigeria are between 1 and 2.5 tons/ha against potential yields of 5–6 tons/ha. Though a major maize producing African country, maize yields in Nigeria are less than 2 tons per hectare on average compared to greater than 9 tons per hectare attained in the USA. This low productivity results in extensive and persistent food insecurity and poverty. Some studies have shown up to 70 per cent of Nigerians as food insecure.

Given the current challenges to agricultural production in Nigeria, climate change is expected to make the situation even worse. Both higher temperatures and shifting rainfall regimes will lower crop yields compared to what they could be under a stable climate. While scientists aren’t sure exactly how rainfall patterns in West Africa will change over the next century, the region will definitely be hotter, with negative consequences for staple crop production. Climate change can also exacerbate pest and disease outbreaks. There is some evidence that the Fall Armyworm outbreaks seen across Africa in 2017 were made worse because of climate change.

There are other, more indirect ways in which climate change can affect Nigerian agriculture. Sea level rise, heavier rainfall, and extreme heat can all take a toll on already stressed and inadequate infrastructure which is needed to grow, harvest, store, and transport crops. Heavy rains and storm surges in coastal areas can wash out bridges and roads; droughts can deplete reservoirs needed to irrigate crops. Under higher temperatures, fruits, vegetables and animal products spoil more rapidly.

In addition, Nigeria is already experiencing deadly conflicts between herders and farmers; as population and land pressure grow, climate change could make these conflicts even worse, and could support recruitment by terrorist groups. People whose livelihoods have failed because of drought, flooding, or other climate impacts may be desperate enough to consider violence. The rise of Boko Haram is correlated with dwindling water resources in the Lake Chad basin which led to crop failure; farmers subsequently abandoned their fields as they fled from the terrorist group. This is an example of how food insecurity, poverty, and violence can feed on one another in a reinforcing spiral.

Despite all of these serious concerns about how climate change will impact food security in Nigeria, there are also considerable grounds for hope. To begin with, Nigeria is still in the process of inventing itself and its future, and the country is a hotbed of innovation and creativity. We see this in the ‘formal’ technological innovation coming out of agricultural research centers, which are developing drought resistant crops, more effective fertilizers, and dryers for safely storing maize. We also see it in the ‘informal’ sector, as farmers experiment with diversifying crop production and finding ways to protect poultry from rising temperatures using ice blocks and improved ventilation.

Nigeria is also an incredibly diverse country climatically, agro-ecologically, and culturally, and scientists know that diversity contributes to resilience. ‘Resilience’ is the ability of a system (in this case, the Nigerian food system) to deal with changes and shocks, and continue to develop. For example, if maize fails due to drought in a given year, millet, sorghum, and root crops could provide staple calories for the population instead. If heavy rains and flooding destroy the harvest in the Southeast, production in the North could compensate. As Nigeria’s agricultural sector develops, there should be a focus on maintaining and cultivating this rich diversity.

Technological solutions such as new and improved crop varieties can help somewhat, but on their own they will not solve all of Nigeria’s climate woes. We should avoid a ‘silver bullet’, singular solution approach in favor of a systems approach to climate resilience. Solutions will have to come from every sector of society, and every scale of decision-making. Community-based approaches to climate resilience have been very effective in other parts of the world, and we want to study how they can play a role in building climate resilience in Nigeria. These might include things like community-scale water management; tree planting; community microfinance; and peer-to-peer education, to name a few. Important lessons can be learned from other countries’ success in building resilience to climate change (for example, Nepal has been lauded for its comprehensive approach to climate resilience at the community scale).

Broadening participation in agriculture, particularly by young people, is also an important part of building resilience to climate change. Younger Nigerians will face more of the effects of climate change over the course of their lifetimes, so they should be integrally involved in designing solutions at the individual, community, and national scales. For example, we have met young people who are interested in an integrated approach to combining aquaculture with crop production and agroforestry. This type of agro-ecological approach to farming shows promise in boosting productivity while maintaining diversity and resilience. Innovations in farming which integrate scientific knowledge and traditional, place-based knowledge, will play a key role in climate adaptation going forward.

As for us, U.S.-based scientists, we believe strongly that international collaboration, drawing on the knowledge and expertise of a diverse group of scientists and stakeholders, will be vital in addressing the challenges of climate change and food insecurity. That is why we are building stakeholder voices into the research design and implementation of the Nigeria Agricultural Policy Project. For example, in 2016, we hosted a workshop on climate change and agricultural productivity in Nigeria. The workshop brought together over 50 participants from all geopolitical zones apart from the North East. The participants were from Nigerian research institutes, academia, private entrepreneurs, civil society, the legislature and state ministries of agriculture. During the workshop, participants brainstormed together on the interaction between the agricultural sector and climate change.

We’ve hosted other, similar workshops focused on climate change and poultry production. Participants have been able to share knowledge with one another about how to deal with the impacts of climate change—for example, how to use ice blocks to keep poultry cool during an extended heatwave. In addition, a broad and diverse group of stakeholders discussing agricultural productivity and climate change in a systemic way revealed challenges and points of intervention that no one person by themselves could have perceived. For example, a proposal has been developed out of these workshops to bring a team of sustainable grazing experts from the United States that would work with stakeholders in northern Nigeria to establish a rotational grazing demonstration. The goal of this project would be to increase cattle production in the North and reduce migration and conflict due to herder displacement.

Nigeria’s situation in regards to climate change is serious, but not hopeless. If Nigeria is to effectively tackle the enormous challenges to food security presented by climate change, diversity, innovation, participation and awareness of climate change impacts should be cultivated in all parts of the agricultural and food system. Fortunately, there is a large group of scientists, policy makers, farmers, community organizations, extension workers, and others who are committed to taking on this challenge. Nigeria has the opportunity to become a global leader in building a productive and resilient agricultural system for the 21st century