The capacity of our global food system to provide sufficient, affordable, and nutritious food in the future depends on how we adapt that system to the anticipated effects of climate change today. The food security crisis of 2022—exacerbated by climate impacts, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Russia’s war on Ukraine—has demonstrated that our food system is inadequately prepared to weather shocks. This crisis serves as a turning point to prepare for a more resilient future by anticipating how climate change will impact our agricultural systems, and by positioning those systems to produce food more sustainably.
This approach requires us to address the fundamentals both below ground and above ground. It requires us to build healthy, fertile soils that can retain water and mitigate against the effects of drought, and that can supply vital nutrients to promote crop health and increase the nutritional content of foods. It also requires crop varieties that are adapted to the many production challenges hurled their way by climate change – higher average temperatures, greater pest and disease pressure, extreme weather events, variable rainfall, and more. The Vision for Adapted Crops & Soils (VACS), launched by the U.S. Department of State, in partnership with the African Union and the FAO in February 2023, seeks to adapt our agricultural systems – starting with Africa – to the anticipated challenges of climate change.
In general, African soils are very poor and depleted. Organic matter content is a fraction of that in the United States. Fertilizer alone cannot solve the problem. Poor soil quality inhibits fertilizer efficiency. And absent healthy soils, substantial chemical fertilizer application can decrease yields compared to not applying it at all. The ideal situation is to build good, healthy soils and then apply the types and quantities of fertilizer indicated by the soil and crop.
Rebuilding African soils and setting the stage for good integrated nutrient management begins with having quality, detailed soil maps. These maps – think of them as blueprints for sustainable agricultural development – allow the government and the farmers to assess land use capacity. They will help policy makers and farmers determine which crops can grow where and what farming techniques and inputs are appropriate.
Soil maps at the necessary scale (1×10,000 or 1×20,000) do not exist for much of Africa. This level of detail is needed to inform and guide management. This is the foundation upon which one can initiate a comprehensive and effective program to rebuild African soils to increase production reliably and sustainably. Such a program would contain numerous elements: crop rotations and the use of a broad range of species, incorporation of plant residue back into the soil (including through no-till practices), use of manure, compost and green nitrogen and fertilizers, biochar produced on-farm or by small businesses, improved water management, etc. and the wise use of commercial fertilizers.
Building a more resilient food system requires growing crops that are adapted to an environment with more heat, less moisture, greater pressure from pests and diseases, frequent extreme weather events like droughts and floods, and less predictability. Plant breeding can help us select varieties that are better able to tolerate these conditions.
Historically, plant breeding investments have been highly concentrated in cash crops and in three major staple crops: maize, wheat, and rice. Together, these three commodities provide about half of global calories. But a healthy diet – one that prevents deficiencies and excesses related to a variety of diseases – depends on consumption of a wide diversity of foods, including whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, animal products, roots, and tubers.
Relative to the major cereal commodities, both the private and public sectors have invested minimal funding in research to improve the climate resiliency of other crops. African agriculture has received little funding for plant breeding to prepare for climate adaptation. Moreover, there has been insufficient effort to understand how current crop mixes in Africa will fare under changing climate conditions, especially at a regional and subregional level.
Plant breeding investment in Africa has largely focused on the most economically important crops, like maize, coffee, and cocoa, rather than the crops that are most important for (or have the most potential for) a healthy diet. Particularly in Africa, which has been hardest hit by the impacts of climate change, there has been minimal investment in the breeding of highly nutritious traditional, indigenous, and orphan crops. Some of the most micronutrient- and protein-rich crops, like legumes, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, receive little-to-no breeding research and investment. This has led to heavy dependency on a few crops, lack of resilience, and an increase in dependency, as well as malnutrition and undernutrition.
To prepare our food systems to deliver food and nutrition security, we need to understand how climate change will impact crops in Africa—especially the crops that are most important for a nutritious diet. We need to catalyze investments in plant breeding efforts in Africa to lay the groundwork for resilient, productive, and nutritious food systems in the future.
The VACS research agenda seeks to achieve these goals through three phases:
Phase 1: Identify the crops that are most important for nutrition in Africa.
Phase 1 will result in the development of a list of nutritious and locally/regionally relevant crops by sub-region. A working group of technical experts will lead the preparation of a preliminary list, which will then be subject to broader consultation with local and regional stakeholders and experts. The final list will be an important reference document for policy makers and researchers. Crops will be selected for inclusion in the list based on relevant criteria, including nutrient content, food group, region, socioeconomic importance, and adaptability. Crops will be selected under each of the five economic subregions in Africa for the following categories: cereals, roots/tubers, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts/seeds/oilseeds. Crops that are strictly for animal fodder, inedible or non-nutritious crops, and primarily export cash crops (e.g., coffee, tea, sugar, cocoa, tobacco) will be excluded.
Phase 2: Assess the future effects of climate change.
Phase 2 will bring together gene bank experts, crop breeders, climate scientists, soil scientists, and nutritionists to assess the expected impacts of changes in temperature ranges, water availability, and pest and disease pressures on the production and availability of the crops identified in Phase 1. This analysis will rely on crop and climate modeling conducted by AgMIP to identify a range of outcomes under predicted climate change scenarios. With this analysis as a baseline, the technical experts will develop targeted approaches to bolstering soil quality and to improving climate adaptation through plant breeding. Phases 1 and 2 will lay the groundwork for rational investments in plant breeding, soil fertility, and agricultural development for national governments and development agencies in the age of climate change.
Phase 3: Catalyze climate change adaptation efforts for these crops.
The results from Phases 1 and 2 will be used to help national policy makers, national agricultural research organizations, the CGIAR, and other relevant actors develop and implement research and investment strategies for improving production and climate-adapting in particular a broad range of high-potential and nutritious traditional and indigenous crops. During diplomatic outreach, the SE will increase awareness and funding for scaling up plant breeding for resilient and nutritious crops. We are currently in discussions to explore financial mechanisms to support Phase 3.