Food plan gives lifeline to the hungry

Sunday December 13 2009

Demonstrators hold signs and banners as they march to the UN Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen December 12, 2009. REUTERS

Demonstrators hold signs and banners as they march to the UN Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen December 12, 2009. REUTERS 

By SAMMY CHEBOI

Kenyans faced with hunger have been handed a lifeline at the ongoing climate talks following the unveiling of a plan aimed at boosting agricultural productivity in the face of climate change.

Against a background of increased global support for improving food security, delegates at the United Nations Climate Change conference in Copenhagen on Sunday heard of a clear and comprehensive strategy which promises to translate the climate change threat into an opportunity for enabling people in the developing world to overcome hunger and poverty.

Largest coalition

According to a 45-page report prepared by the world’s largest coalition of international agricultural scientists, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a dozen well-researched approaches like weather-based insurance, improved soil and water management, drought-resistant crop varieties and rehabilitation of degraded lands, is all agriculture needs to turn the tide against the vagaries of global warming.

More than 10 million Kenyans are food insecure, forcing the government to declare hunger a national disaster. I has appealed for more than Sh35 billion from the international community to help feed these people.

Already, 3.8 million school children are on the list of World Food Programme through the school feeding plan.

Climate change presents a very real threat to livelihoods and food security for millions of people in developing countries. Yet, agriculture is also adding to the climate change problem. Current practices, including the conversion of forests and grasslands to crops and pasture, contributes some 31 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But the latest strategy calls first for an intensive effort to speed the development and dissemination of dozens of improved technologies, including drought resistant crop varieties and more efficient ways to manage water, trees, soils, livestock, fish and forests. These have emerged from more than 30 years of dedicated research, aimed at enabling the rural poor to achieve sustainable production.

“We have developed a number of new seed varieties but the farmers are not even aware of their existence. The breakdown of extension services is a hindrance to the adoption of these plant materials,” says Mercy Karanja, a Kenyan agricultural scientist based in the US.

“Agriculture has not been funded for the past two decades, as such, farmers have been abandoned by the government,” says Ms Karanja, a senior programme officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development programme.

The Foundation works in Kenya through funding other organisations like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and the Catholic Relief Services.

“Turning this wealth of knowledge into action will…bolster food security and adapt agriculture to climate change impacts in the near term, while mitigating future impacts through reduced greenhouse gas emissions,” said Thomas Rosswall, chair of the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) steering committee.

“A quick response now will also buy us time to develop the more potent climate change solutions that will be needed 10 years from now,” he said.

Ms Karanja says the Foundation is very conscious about the challenges smallholder farmers in Africa are faced with as a result of climate change.

Help the farmer

“Our very basic concern is to help the farmer to have food. If he is food sufficient, then we move to the next level of producing a surplus for sale,” she says.

The Ministry of Agriculture has often pledged to distribute free seeds to farmers ahead of the rains but in most cases, such deliveries are made when rains have fallen, defeating the very purpose of early planting.

Similarly, the Sh500 million livestock uptake programme this year to cushion pastoralists from loss of animals due to drought was hijacked by middlemen who made a killing out farmers’ misery. The programme faded quietly, its success or otherwise remaining a mystery.