Food Security and Climate Change: Which Food Crop to Count On?

Submitted by Susy Wandera | published 25th Jan 2013 | last updated 1st Feb 2013
510bb525c39f75102a5660b8efmaize-drying-in-kitale-area 1 - climate adaptation.

Kenya has a land area which is over 80% arid and semi-arid and only 6% arable to grow food to feed a population of about 40 million. Kenya faces both food insecurity and water deficiency. The World Food Summit of 1996 defines food security as a situation when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life; while the government of Kenya categorizes food security as availability and location of food, accessibility, affordability and nutritional value.

The most important staple food considered by the majority of the population is maize, followed by beans, potatoes, wheat, rice, and bananas. For the majority of Kenyans, when there is meagre maize harvest they consider this as food insecurity despite the availability of the other staples. Why? Because maize is the predominant crop for household food security and for the market. It grows faster, can be stored dry and its agronomic challenges can be managed often by famers alone without much expert advice. The pastoralist communities often query why livestock is not included in the list of items under food security, it seems livestock like fish and vegetables are regarded as accompaniments to the dish of the “food” – maize from which "ugali"  the maize flour pulp is made.

Transforming the underlying psychological importance of maize over other staple foods, to minimize or adapt to food insecurity, is important in the interventions to address the existent food deficiency Kenya is facing. While these observations may seem a bit light-hearted they do point to an unspoken challenge that hinders Kenya's endeavor to improve the food security situation.

Traditional high value foods such as sweet potatoes, cassava, millet and sorghum seem to require concerted advocacy efforts to be embraced as viable commercial options. Yet they are a critical variable in the ability to enhance food security.

The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change in 2011, reviewing scientific evidence to identify ways of achieving food security in the context of climate change, recommended that food systems should change to better meet human needs and in the long term be able to balance planetary resources. This would demand interventions, at local, national and global levels, in transforming current patterns of food production, distribution and consumption.

It was also recommended that investment, innovation, and deliberate effort to empower the most vulnerable populations to construct global food systems that adapt to climate change and ensure food security while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and sustaining natural resource bases. It was also noted that expanded investments in sustainable agriculture, including improving supporting infrastructure and restoring degraded ecosystems, are an essential component of long-term economic development.

These recommendations are familiar to people engaged in the climate change forum in general and in the Kenyan context in particular. However the most critical deterrent in our ability to implement these interventions seems always to be financial capital. There does not seem to be enough of it to facilitate all the competing responsibilities of providing enabling environments to meet the needs of the public by the duty bearer.

On a much smaller scale, non-state actors endeavour to work with and inspire communities to carry out adaptive actions to enhance their resilience to gain food security, despite the grim figures highlighted by the World Food Programme (WFP) that by 2050, the number of people at risk of hunger as a result of climate change is expected to increase from 10% to 20% more than would be expected without climate change; and the number of malnourished children is expected to increase by 24 million, which is 21% more than without climate change.

The photo of the water pan below taken in Wajir, an arid and semi arid region, is an example of an intervention utilized by some of the pastoralist community to improve their food security. From this pan water can be used for livestock and irrigation.


Water collection from a water pan in Wajir

Deliberate action towards harvesting and storing water not only in the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) but throughout Kenya can contribute immensely to creating food security.

An added challenge that does not garner attention is the way climate change has been exacerbating conflicts between agricultural and pastoralist communities, on one hand and amongst pastoralist communities. In the past year conflicts have occurred in the Rift Valley region, amongst the Turkana, Pokot, Marakwet and IL Chamus who are all pastoralists. More recent conflicts erupted in Wajir, Mandera, Isiolo and Tana River Delta.

The Tana River conflict between the agricultural and pastoralist communities is ongoing. Whilst other reasons are fronted as the genesis of the tensions, the silent driver is climate change. What this does is further complicate Kenya's efforts whether from the government or non-state actors or a combination of both, to progress in carrying out their interventions of stabilizing food security under the shadow of climate change.