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Investing in rainfall research for better food security in the Sahel

The prolonged heatwave of summer 2018 has devastated crops across Europe, leaving some countries facing their worst harvests since the end of World War II.

The hot temperatures and lack of rainfall, especially in central and Eastern Europe, has forced major exporting countries to import food for the first time in decades. Some countries are facing rising food prices as a result, while others, such as the UK, experience fruit and vegetable shortages in supermarkets.

France is expected to lose more than 20% of its grain harvests; while wheat harvests in Italy and the UK will likely drop by 13% and 12% respectively. Across the EU as a whole, wheat production is down by 10 million tons, which accounts for about 10% of normal production.

Now, imagine the Sahel region, where agriculture remains the primary driver of countries’ economies and the majority of the workforce is still employed in the sector. In Burkina Faso, for example, 80% of the working population is employed in agriculture, which contributes up to 40% to GDP. Agriculture is also the main source of food and income for farm households and rural populations. Traditional cereals, including sorghum, millet, maize, rice and, to a lesser extent, fonio are the most consumed staples and 95% of food produced is for domestic consumption.

Overcoming the combined challenge of population growth and climate change

As populations grow rapidly in most countries in the Sahel, demand for food is also on the rise. Currently, there are 300 million people to feed in the Sahel region, but the figure is expected to hit 500 million by 2050. In Niger, for example, the population is projected to grow so rapidly that it could reach 72 million by 2050, compared to its current 20 million inhabitants. Research shows that food demand in the Sahel  is expected to increase from approximately 60% to almost 100% by 2050.

To meet the growing demand for food, agricultural productivity needs to urgently increase. However, due to a low use of modern inputs and low levels of technology adoption, agriculture in the Sahel threatened by adverse climatic conditions, which are projected to worsen over the years to come. Over the last few decades, the Sahel has witnessed rising temperatures, a reduction in average annual rainfall and higher climate variability, which is reflected in more frequent severe droughts. So, as if population growth and its associated growing demand for food do not already add enough pressure on food systems, climate change now adds an additional layer of complexity.

Research suggests a reduction in yields due to changing rainfall patterns in the Sahel, which has particularly affected millet, sorghum, maize, and rice, some of the main crops grown for domestic consumption in the region.  A 6°C increase in temperature and 20% drop in rainfall is project to reduce millet and sorghum yields in the Sahel by up to 41%. More specifically, in Niger, one of the most food insecure countries in the region, each major drought observed since 2000 has led to a dramatic fall in yields, of between 21% and 24% for millet and between 19% and 28% for sorghum. Needless to say, these droughts and associated drops in yields had devastating effects on the livelihoods and food security of smallholder famers and their families.

Enhancing resilience through informed policies

 Agricultural policies, therefore, need to be tailored in a way that takes into account the projected increase in rainfall variability under different climate change scenarios. To do so, research on the relationship between rainfall variability and food security in the Sahel region must be made available. Providing policymakers with high quality research and evidence to make informed decisions is an effective way to improve the livelihoods of the region’s most marginalized and poor. For instance, it has recently been shown that research conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute has contributed to improving the lives of at least 200 million people by informing policy design and implementation, as well as guiding investments made by governments, the private sector and development partners.

Researchers in the Sahel face many barriers that prevent them from engaging in high quality research on issues that matter for the livelihoods of their populations. Such barriers include chronic underinvestment in universities and research institutions, a lack of access to current research findings, and low wages and poor career prospects for researchers. Both public and private sectors, therefore, have a key role to play by investing in research to overcome these barriers.