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Food beyond maize

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Malawi, like any other country worldwide, is weighed down by effects of climate change that call for new ways of doing things. FLORENCE ROLLE and COCO USHIYAMA, Country Representatives for Food Agriculture Organisation and Word Food Programme in Malawi respectively, explore more on the role of climate smart agriculture as a tool for adapting the country’s agriculture sector to ensure food and nutrition security, incomes and resilience under climate change.

THE run-away caseload of food and nutrition insecurity currently prevailing in Malawi, over double of what it was in the 2014/2015 consumption year, risks being repeated in the coming years if changes are not made to address the growing negative impacts of climate change.

These changes must be at the national, community and household level response to ensure that climate smart agriculture, which is nutrition sensitive, is adopted and used at a wide scale as the underpin to agriculture production in the country’s largely rain-fed systems under climate change.

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As the country observed the 13th National Agriculture Fair this year (8-10 September) befittingly themed: “Climate smart agriculture: Key to sustainable agribusiness”, all stakeholders must accelerate the adoption and scaling up of climate smart agriculture to enhance climate change adaptation in Malawi’s agriculture, food and nutrition security sectors.

Recent facts and figures rank Malawi as one of the 12 countries in the world that are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change and variability. Without appropriate adjustments in agriculture and food systems, subsistence and smallholder farmers – who comprise 90 percent of the population in the country – will continue to suffer from climate-related hazards.

These hazards include frequent and prolonged dry spells, seasonal droughts, intense rainfall, riverine floods and flash floods. As a consequence, the net food buyers this year or surplus sellers in another year will also continue to suffer from price volatility and unpredictability in food and agricultural markets.

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Climate change-induced hazards are already being felt at national and community levels in Malawi, and will continue to intensify in the future. Impact of the hazards includes direct reduction in the productivity of crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture.

As we all know, negative impacts in all these enterprises will not only negatively impact on food and nutrition security but will also reduce incomes and cause losses of household assets as well as erode the ability of communities to withstand attendant hardships of food and nutrition insecurity and the function of markets to respond to the needs of people.

In view of the toll that droughts, floods and changes in rainfall pattern are taking on the agriculture as well as on food and nutrition security sectors in Malawi, various commentators have expressed the need to adopt and scale up climate smart agriculture.

But what is climate smart agriculture? It is a new practice in agriculture, or a new technology, which farmers can use in order to protect their farming enterprises, household food security and their assets from the ongoing ravages of climate change and variability that are occurring season in, season out.

Simply put, climate smart agriculture is an approach to develop and implement the technical, policy and investment conditions to achieve sustainable agricultural development for food and nutrition security under climate change.

The three pillars for climate smart agriculture are sustainably increase agricultural productivity and incomes, adapt and build resilience to climate change and, where possible, reduce and/or remove greenhouse gas emissions.

At the core of the approach is development planning that takes into consideration food and nutrition security, the need to adapt to climate change and capturing the co-benefits of greenhouse gas mitigation options.

Multiple stakeholders in the country have identified two key drivers that can enhance adaptation or improve the resilience of the agriculture sector in Malawi.

The first driver is a set of context-specific climate smart agricultural practices that improve soil fertility and water use efficiency in farmers’ fields under uncertain climate conditions. This entails a) on-farm context-specific agricultural practices including: i) sustainable land management practices ranging from legume intercropping, conservation agriculture, soil and water conservation, rain-water harvesting, agroforestry and farmer managed tree regeneration which includes fruit trees, to minimum soil disturbance; ii) improved crop varieties (including early maturing types) and animal breeds, drought-tolerant crops and varieties; iii) livestock/crop integration systems; and iv) improved irrigation systems; and b) practices beyond farm fields – these duly recognise that input use efficiency depends on farmers’ practices on their fields and mitigation of postharvest losses but also on upstream conservation of natural resources and access to ecosystem services (threatened by deforestation that exacerbates flood impacts, increased soil erosion, land degradation and siltation of water bodies).

While investment in restoration of degraded areas might be needed, investment in avoiding further degradation of high to medium potential areas might be more efficient investment for the future of the agricultural sector in Malawi. Key drivers to address these issues include: i) protection of catchments through tree planting and management; auto-regeneration of trees; and ii) ensuring sustainable charcoal production and promotion of appropriate energy saving technologies as part of a locally driven natural resources management intervention.

The second driver comprises a set of income diversification strategies to both on-farm and off-farm activities in order to mitigate the negative impacts of increased risk of crop failure, associated with the increased frequency of extreme climate events. This is also in the context of increasing human population pressure. Key drivers here can include improving smallholders farmers’ access to credit, insurance, improved inputs, needed for enterprise diversification (such as improved seeds, mechanisation, user-friendly information, adapted livestock breeds) as well as functioning output markets that are driven by a value-chain approach and are serviced by quality infrastructure. Well-functioning output markets are key to the provision of nutritious food for consumers including farmers who are net food buyers. They also provide incentives for producers to invest in technologies and inputs in line with climate smart agriculture practices.

Diversification of plant and animal food products should be promoted to ensure nutrition security in addition to contributing to income diversification and risk hedge of crop failure. Social Behaviour Communication Change should go hand in hand with diversification of production in order to create the demand and support properly improved diets in the communities. As such, linkages with the government initiatives like the Scaling Up Nutrition must be promoted.

Scaling up adoption of integrated on-farm and off-farm practices will be made possible through the generation, proper use and interpretation of user-tailored downscaled climate information for evidence-based decision making.

Last but not least, adoption of climate smart agriculture practices will be boosted by the strengthening of the capacity of extension services for effective knowledge delivery. Improving the capacity, quality and outreach of extension services in Malawi is a key lever for promoting adoption of the climate smart agriculture practices.

It is, however, important to note that climate smart agriculture is not an agriculture practice as widely believed but, rather, it is an approach that should be driven by on- and off-farm practices, critical drivers, enablers for increasing food and nutrition security and income towards environmentally sustainable and economically/ commercially sustained agriculture.

Climate smart agriculture, as an approach, should be supported by an overarching policy such as the National Agriculture Policy currently being finalised coupled with appropriate and stable investments. Further, this should be anchored by a mindset change, shifting from silo-based approaches among various players in livelihoods improvement and resilience to inter-sector coordination, collaboration and linkages for synergy and efficiency.

Mindset change must be fostered in terms of what comprise food beyond maize to diversified sources at household levels. These approaches can help support small-scale subsistence farmers to address and adapt to climate change while mitigating its worst effects.

By adopting climate smart agriculture, together, we can shift Malawi away from the cycle of food and nutrition insecurity towards a sustainable food and nutrition secure future.

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