Two statistics summarise Nigeria’s food crisis. First, an estimated 46 million people lack access to food that is safe, cheap, and available to eat. Second, 44% of children under five are stunted. This is a life-long scar that affects their cognitive skills and development. Looking at other countries, Nigeria’s level of stunting is similar to that of conflict-ridden environments like Sudan (38%), Afghanistan (41%) and Yemen (46%).
But these will look like child’s play in the future thanks to climate change. With less water and more extreme temperatures, crops will not grow as well and farmers will struggle to harvest food. And as Nigeria has so many poor people—the group most affected by climate change, it could have an even higher number of hungry people and deformed children by the time population doubles to 410 million in 2050.
The effects of climate change
Climate change refers to long-lasting changes in weather patterns (e.g. temperature and rainfall) predominantly caused by human activities like transportation and manufacturing, that release carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere. Although climate change scepticism still exists, the evidence that climate change is happening is compelling. The effects of this climate change are wide-ranging, from temperature rises and extreme heat waves and the loss of sea ice, to more frequent natural disasters.
One event that would become more frequent is drought—increased land dryness and prolonged water shortages. In addition, an overlooked consequence of climate change is the increase in pests and diseases that hurt man, plants, and animals. When temperature and humidity levels change, pests carrying viruses survive and grow in population, the effectiveness of pesticides weakens, and the hosts are left vulnerable.
Climate Change and Agriculture Productivity
The result of all this is reduced crop and livestock yield. For instance, warmer land conditions and lack of water means that crops would not get the nutrients needed to grow well while livestock would also be affected by the lack of grazing areas to feed.
The severity of these implications can be seen in East Africa, a region that has a history of droughts, which have intensified lately as a result of little rainfall and higher temperatures. Under these conditions, livestock and crops found it hard to survive, thus causing famine. In 2019, as many as 3 million people in Ethiopia and 2 million people in Somalia are considered at risk of hunger due to drought.
As mentioned above, pests and diseases become a greater problem amid climate change. They threaten the growth of crops and livestock by reducing nutrients available to them and spreading viruses that are difficult to treat. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that this reduces crop yields by as much as 40% each year. Moreover, pests spread fast, sometimes moving across continents. For example, a maize-munching pest originated in the Americas before spreading to Africa, where it affected 35 million hectares of maize.
Another way climate change hampers productivity is through farm labour. One study in the U.S. found that farmers worked less following harsh weather. Imagine a similar situation in Nigeria, where over 40% of the workforce is in agriculture.
Finally, climate change may affect the quality of farm produce as high exposure to carbon dioxide can lead to a reduction in nutrients like protein, zin and iron obtained in some foods. Researchers at Harvard University conducted experiments in the U.S., Australia, and Japan that showed that crops have fewer nutrients when exposed to high levels of carbon dioxide.
Conflict or Cooperation?
There is no consensus on the link between climate change and conflict. Ban Ki-moon, the former Secretary-General of the UN, partly attributed the 2007 Darfur conflict to low rainfall caused by climate change. Since then, some researchers have also shown a link between high temperatures and conflict in Africa. But others have contested the validity of this claim, suggesting that political, social, and economic factors play a significant role in causing and sustaining conflicts. Moreover, they argue that climate change can actually lead to cooperation as people work together to neutralise its impact.
In Nigeria, we can find evidence of the former point; for example, in the farmer-herdsmen conflict. Pastoralists practice open grazing in Nigeria, so are not confined to an area to feed their livestock but instead roam in search of food. As initial grazing routes have been abandoned over time, fierce competition for land and water has emerged between herdsmen and farmers. While the farmers need land and water for their crops, the herdsmen want the resources to feed their livestock.
The effects of climate change—lower water supply due to dryness in the North, etc.—have compelled herdsmen to move further south in search of better grazing fields and water. This encroachment has caused conflict, and the effect has been the loss of crops, livestock, and human lives, along with higher food prices.
Who is at the Wheel?
One tragedy of climate change is that the industrialised nations that have contributed most to the phenomenon are less vulnerable than developing countries like Nigeria. For example, the U.S. and EU were responsible for 47.5% of cumulative global greenhouse gas emissions as at 2015; in the prior century, it was 87.5%. Africa contributed just 2.5% of global emissions despite being home to 15% of the global population. Meanwhile, poorer countries rank lower on the Global Adaptation Index, which measures countries’ ability to respond to and manage the effects of climate change.
Still, respond they must. Unfortunately, climate change mitigation and adaptation requires a lot of resources which developing countries lack. Worse, they have not had significant success in extracting concessions and support from richer countries.
In Nigeria, there is no clear plan for adaptation and mitigation. Nigeria signed the Paris Agreement, but there has been little progress since then. We should not be surprised, though. The exploration of oil & gas in the Niger Delta has had similar environmental impacts to climate change, and four decades later, little action has been taken.
Even government support for agriculture has usually come in the form of subsidised credit or inputs, and we are yet to focus energies on boosting agriculture productivity, which will be hampered by climate change. Smallholder farmers produce most of the food consumed in Nigeria, yet may be the least prepared for the coming storm. At the same time, other countries are cultivating disease and drought-resistant crops or empowering farmers through modern farming techniques.
Ironically, without a coherent climate plan, agriculture activities will contribute to climate change. This will happen as farmers cultivate more land due to a reduction in crop yields and spread out in search of water and fertile land.
Climate change is one of the problems countries would have to confront to support crop yields and sustain food security in the future. While policies to combat it has taken off in some countries, progress has been negligible in Nigeria. Dealing with climate change is essential to solving Nigeria’s food crisis, now and in the future.
Follow this Writer on Twitter @Adheydayor