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Africa's Lost Crops Vital in Climate Change War

Op-Ed, The Daily Nation, (Kenya) Climate Change Special Report

November 6, 2006

Author: Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Science, Technology, and Public Policy; Science, Technology, and Globalization


Climate change will have dramatic impacts on the world economy similar to those associated with great wars, according to a new report released in London.

The report, prepared by Sir Nicholas Stern, a world leading economist and former chief economist at the World Bank, has dire predictions for Africa.

For example, it warns that that "declining crop yields, especially in Africa, could leave hundreds of millions without the ability to produce or purchase sufficient food."

The report places particular emphasis on the importance of technological innovation in responding to climate change. It calls for the "development and deployment of a wide range of low-carbon technologies" to help cut emissions.

Such technologies will need to be accompanied by innovations that help developing countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Responding to such challenges will entail expanding the diversity of crops as well as flexibility of cropping systems. Developing new crops and changing farming system may take generations and so the challenge is finding ways to utilise all the available technologies.

Africa has the capacity to diversify its agriculture by bringing many of its lost crops (vegetables and fruits) into wider commercial use. This may involve the use of agricultural biotechnology to adapt crops to new ecological conditions.

A new report of the US National Academy of Sciences, Lost Crops of Africa, presents 18 vegetables that could help broaden Africa’s food base. These indigenous vegetables (including amaranth, cowpea, and egusi) are cherished in many parts of Africa but are generally overlooked by policy-makers and scientists in the rest of the world.

The report was prepared by a committee chaired by Nobel laureate and father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug. It builds on earlier work carried out on Africa’s grains. A future volume covering 14 African fruits (including butter fruit, custard apples, and marula) is being prepared.

Further research on such crops, which are currently considered “lost”, will not only benefit Africa, but will add to the world’s capacity to prepare for disruptions in food systems around the world.

Time is not on Africa’s side. Developing a new crop variety takes up to a decade and demands long-term research commitment. In addition, it will entail using a combination of traditional and new technologies such as genetic engineering.

Breeding drought-tolerant crops, for example, will demand the use of genetic engineering techniques in combination with conventional plant breeding methods. African countries will need to put in place policies that facilitate technological innovation while providing safeguards against the risks arising from such applications.

Pursuing such long-term research will involve considerable international cooperation involving African scientists and their counterparts in the rest of the world. It can also benefit from new interest among donors such as the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation to support efforts to strengthen African agriculture.

Furthermore, emerging interests among African presidents such as Malawi’s Mbingu wa Mutharika, to create new technology-based universities could also provide new opportunities for partnerships with other universities around the world.

Similar arguments can be made regarding the design and maintenance of infrastructure. African countries will need to incorporate ecological considerations into the design of infrastructure. For example, the design of ports and other facilities will need to take into account variations in temperature and rainfall.

Ecological disruptions can also serve as a stimulus for investing in engineering education in general and ecological design in particular. It is anticipated that such disruptions will increase demand for the technical skills needed to build and maintain infrastructure projects. In addition, it will require greater prudence in the design and location of such projects.

These projections will require Africa to create governance systems which rely on knowledge-based decision-making on a wide range of activities. It will take smart governments, informed leaders and strong international technology partnerships to steer countries and regions through the challenges of adapting to climate change.

Leadership on building international partnerships to adapt to climate change will have to come from Africa. The Nairobi meeting of the contracting parties to the United Nations climate treaty will serve as an important starting point for reasoned debate on this issue.

Professor Calestous Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and co-chairs an expert panel on modern biotechnology for the African Union and New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).


For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Juma, Calestous. "Africa's Lost Crops Vital in Climate Change War." The Daily Nation(Kenya) Climate Change Special Report, November 6, 2006.

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