Leaders at the G8 meeting next week must commit to helping Africa counter the predicted negative impacts of climate change on crop production, according to a Royal Society report published today (20 June 2005).

The report, based on a meeting of experts on climate change and crop production which was held at the Royal Society in April, points out that Africa is consistently predicted to be among the worst hit areas across a range of future climate change scenarios. It also indicates that new data suggest the impact on crop yields and quality may be more severe than previously thought.

Professor Brian Hoskins, a Fellow of the Royal Society and one of the organisers of the meeting, said: “The threat of climate change to an already vulnerable Africa cannot be underestimated. The changes in weather patterns which we expect to see, such as more extreme temperatures and changes in rainfall, have potentially disastrous consequences for a continent which relies so heavily on rain-fed agriculture. Some of the knowledge and expertise needed to reduce the negative impacts of these changes already exists. The scientists of Africa need to be trained and equipped now, through partnerships with those in the developed world, so that they can provide their policymakers with the information required to take the most effective action.”

“Recent experiments call into doubt the possibility that better crop growth due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will compensate for the negative impacts on crop yield of an overall rise in temperatures. Tests on crops in the field rather than in the greenhouse suggest that the increases in yield from higher carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could be less than half what was originally predicted. The fertilisation effect of carbon dioxide will also depend on the availability of water and nitrogen, which may be limited.”

Professor Hoskins continued: “Advances in seasonal weather forecasting are increasingly leading to predictions that should be useful for agricultural decision-making. This can only happen if African scientists are given the resources to collect data and to evaluate forecasts for their regions. Farmers can then take action before a crop fails rather than just trying to pick up the pieces afterwards. With the right warning systems in place, and sufficient resources, they can decide to try growing different kinds of crops or save resources and not grow anything for a season. They can also capitalise on forecasts of good growing conditions by applying fertiliser only in these years.”

Professor Hoskins added: “But there are also many research programmes that need to be undertaken to build resilience to climate change in the long-term. Continuing to develop models and carrying out further field studies is needed so that we can more confidently and accurately predict how a changing climate will affect the growth of crops. Alongside this, crop scientists needed to look at breeding plant types that have higher thresholds of tolerance for extreme weather events so that yields are less vulnerable.”

The report’s call for the need to build science capacity in Africa echoes the contents of a joint statement issued by the science academies of the G8 nations and the Network of African Science Academies last week. It called for a clear commitment from the G8 leaders to build development of science, technology and innovation capacity into international assistance programme and ensure that these initiatives are African-led and sensitive to cultural diversity.

Original press release: G8 must help Africa counter impact of climate change (Royal Society)

Relevant BBC story: Climate ‘key to African future’ (BBC)