Spartans Spring into Action to Aid East African Farmers
Published: Monday, 23 Apr 2012
Devastating droughts in East Africa are not new. However, since the 1980s, villagers have noticed changes in the rainy seasons. Year by year, erratic rainfall has led to more failed harvests. In the past 10 years, droughts have started to occur more frequently — every 3 or 4 years. Meanwhile, temperatures have been rising, and crops and forage plants are drying out faster. The combination of warming temperatures and unreliable rainfall is spelling disaster for the region’s farmers and livestock herders.
Researchers attribute the change in the weather pattern in East Africa to climate change — a long-term alteration in global weather patterns.
In 2009 a terrible three-year drought ended. It was the worst in 40 years in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, where a Michigan State University team has been conducting fieldwork. Maasai herders saw their livestock start to die and trekked many miles with their animals to search for grass and water. About half of the cattle died, and many herders were wiped out. The increasing frequency of droughts and the general warming and drying across the region has led herders, farmers, scientists, and policy makers to demand better information on what they can expect in the future, and what they can do about it.
Enter Michigan State University and its team of researchers from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda who will use a $430,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study the effect of climate change on agriculture in the East African nations in an effort to improve food production. The grant is part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s $70 million Climate Change Resilience Initiative, which includes a commitment to prioritizing resilience strategies that will benefit smallholder farming in Africa. This project builds on MSU research and modeling supported by the National Science Foundation since 2000.
Unique to this project is that for the first time regionally specific climate modeling for Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda will be conducted providing a detailed look at the impact of changing temperatures and rainfall on crops and plants. The regional focus is particularly important when studying East Africa because of how near-by areas have such different climates, from the glaciers on top of Mt. Kenya to a desert only 75 miles away. The mountains, valleys, savannas, glaciers and deserts are all impacted by climate change differently.
“The more we’re researching climate change and the more we’re understanding it, we’re finding that local differences are very important, very critical,” said Jennifer Olson, lead researcher and associate professor in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences at MSU. “So, for example, the rainy seasons are changing, but it’s highly localized as to how they’re changing.”
With assistance from an MSU supercomputer, MSU researchers are linking a customized regional climate model with crop, water and other models. As a result, they can test the possible effectiveness of new and old crop varieties in responding to climate change in different farming areas in East Africa.
“We have the best regional modeling system for East Africa to indicate where climate change is going to happen, how it’s going to happen, what the impact will be on crop productivity, and how agricultural specialists in the region can best plan for that.” Olson said.
In short, the MSU research project will focus on providing key new information that agricultural scientists, farmers and policy makers will use to identify options to improve food security in the face of climate change and climate variability. As defined by the World Food Summit, food security exists “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.”
While an integral aspect of the MSU project is to improve food production through crop breeding developed for the increasingly warmer, less reliable weather, Olson is quick to point out that there are many other issues that the project will address, including improving land-us management, identifying techniques for better farming in changing climate conditions, determining the impact of climate change on livestock forage and surface water availability, and further detailed climate research on how changes in the landscape affect the local and regional climate.
Another key component to the project is to train scientists in East Africa to use crop-climate models and thus make best use of climate change science in the development of their countries.
“The project will allow us to train African researchers in how to analyze crop-climate data, so that they can test different possibilities themselves,” said Nathan Moore, assistant professor of geography at MSU and co-investigator on the research project.
MSU’s long-standing commitment to African research will aid the project’s success, said Jeffrey Riedinger, dean of MSU International Studies and Programs. “Throughout the past 50 years,” he said, “MSU has established valuable connections in Africa, a great network of partners in the region and significant scholarship there.”