In much of the world, climate change is altering regional growing conditions and making them more unpredictable. Farmers are finding it harder to consistently grow enough food to meet increasing demand. Securing the world’s food supply for the future, experts assert, requires us to tally the good and the bad in the current agricultural structure, including the infrastructure and technology in food distribution systems.
Small farms, which account for about 90% of the world’s 570 million farms, are particularly vulnerable to changes in seasonal climate. Land tended by families for generations may suddenly become nonarable. A change in the timing or intensity of yearly rainy seasons or the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), for example, could bring rains or drought that wipe out a family’s crops.
In early May 2020, the Nzoia River burst its banks. The floods that resulted in western Kenya capped off particularly heavy long rains that killed 237 people and adversely affected more than 800,000. Floods and landslides destroyed homes, schools, roads, bridges, and more than 8,000 acres (32 square kilometers) of Kenyan farmland.
Kenya’s March-May rainy season (the long rains, as opposed to the short rains of October-December) provides vital moisture to the country’s croplands—indeed, maize production was at least 10% above average in 2020—but most Kenyans continue to face some level of food insecurity. In the past few years especially, climate change has caused a geographical shift in which areas receive rain and which suffer drought.
“Normally, we know where the flood areas are,” but the rains the past few years have been “unprecedented,” said Ruth K. Oniang’o, founder of the Rural Outreach Africa Program and a 2017 Africa Food Prize Laureate. “We have rain falling in areas that never used to have rain. I used to write all the time about famines and drought…but right now is something different. We can say, ‘Okay, climate variability, it changes every year.’ No. This is different right now.”
The differences extend beyond Africa. Farmers in Iran, for example, share similar problems anticipating cycles of drought and floods despite being separated from their Kenyan counterparts by more than 7,000 kilometers. “The recent harsh droughts and heavy floods in the [Middle East] region ruined a major part of food resources,” explained Mohanna Zarei, a water resources engineer at the University of Kurdistan in Sanandaj, Iran. Sporadic precipitation cycles not only reduce crop yields but can also lead to secondary impacts that worsen food security, like the wildfires that have ravaged thewestern United States, Australia, Brazil, and elsewhere.
Financial and social inequality compound climate-related food security issues. Many of the world’s smallholder farmers are poor and food insecure; even one lost season can push them from struggling to failing. “Climate change plays a key role as a catalyzer”…
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