Getting Smart About Climate and Agriculture
Beautifully tended agro-ecological farm, Marracuene, Mozambique. (Photo: Timothy A. Wise)
Originally published on Medium, March 17, 2019
In Mozambique’s lovely capital city of Maputo, the afternoon temperature had just hit 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Maputo is in the tropics, but this was October 2017, their springtime, and no one could remember a hotter October day. Inside the air-conditioned Radisson Blu Hotel on the city’s waterfront, African government representatives and international experts gathered for the African Union’s annual agricultural research conference. Organized by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, these conferences monitor and support African governments’ ambitious commitments since 2006 to invest in agricultural development. Well-dressed participants sipped bottled water and took on the theme for this year’s conference: “Climate-Smart Agriculture.”
The day before I’d been with farmers in Marracuene, just 45 minutes up the coast from Maputo. They weren’t embracing the experts’ climate-smart initiatives but rather defending themselves from them. They wanted no part of synthetic fertilizer, which was labeled climate-smart even though it came from fossil fuels. Small-scale family farmers often referred to such practices, and the “technology package” of which they were a part, as “climate-stupid agriculture.”
In southern Africa, there is nothing abstract about climate change. In the unseasonable spring heat, the women of Marracuene told me of the climate roller coaster they had been riding the last few years. They had seen their rainy seasons turn erratic and undependable, shortening the growing season. They’d seen unusually frequent and intense storms bring floods through their well-tended fields, washing away seeds, crops, and topsoil. They had suffered two consecutive years of drought, worsening the cyclical El Niño weather pattern that wreaks havoc with farmers. In those droughts, they had sweltered in heat waves they said were unprecedented, with temperatures climbing out of the nineties to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, then 106. In 2017 the thermometer hit 110 and crops baked to a crisp in the parched fields. Blessed with irrigation that allows them a second crop in the dry season, they had even seen that backfire on them. In the 2015 drought, the Incomati River, which fills their irrigation ditches with water, saw water levels so low that the Indian Ocean, four miles downriver and swollen with rising sea levels, flowed back up the dried riverbed. Irrigation canals in parts of the region filled with salt water, destroying crops and land.
The women who lead Marracuene’s 7,000-member farmer associations seemed undaunted. They had their own climate adaptation strategies, and those did not involve using more fossil fuels or growing monocultures of commercial seeds….
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Excerpted with permission from the “Introduction” to Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food (The New Press, 2019).