Esther Ngumbi: Food Security in the Face of Climate Change

One of the few positives to come out of a recent spate of catastrophic weather events has been the fact that climate change is now nigh on undeniable, and more people than ever are working to prevent its future effects. Yet there are parts of the world in which climate change is more than the progenitor of random disasters, where it has become an everyday reality.

One such area is sub-Saharan Africa. Despite being one of the poorest regions of the world, it’s also a region that has enormous potential for agricultural transformation, helping to solve not only local food crises, but global ones as well. A prominent example is Kenya, where the agricultural sector contributes to over half of the Gross Domestic Product, and provides food and employment for more than 80% of the population. Working for Kenya and other countries in the region is the chance to avoid mistakes made by other regions in the past, as they benefit both from hindsight and improved technology. Yet working against them is that encroaching threat of climate change.

It’s a topic that Assistant Professor Esther Ngumbi, of the University of Illinois has been vocal about. Esther grew up on a farm in rural Kenya, and has witnessed the effects of increased drought and weather variability over the last decade. Esther’s work on food security in Africa has seen her work published in everything from the Journal of Chemical Ecology to Times Magazine.

At 2019’s BES Annual meeting, I got the chance to speak to Esther about everything from African governments to the shifting of climate baselines.

Sam Perrin (SP): In the Global North, is there an awareness of where our food comes from?

Assistant Professor Esther Ngumbi (EN): I think not. I think most of the younger generation just see their food as coming from the supermarkets. Just last year I was taking a biology class with undergraduates, and they had no understanding of the journey of food. These are 18-20 year old young adults, and it was quite clear that they still have not figured out how food moves from the soil until their plate. So there’s still that disconnect, even though there are so many groups that are trying to raise awareness that food has a journey.

There are so many economic costs, environmental costs, and other social factors that are associated with food too that people need to know about. Young people especially need to know, because they care. So that they can be more concerned and more vocal about the issues that surround food. And it’s not only a Global North problem. Urbanisation is a global phenomena, generations are moving from farms into the cities, which means people are losing the appreciation of that journey their food makes.

SP: You are from north-East Kenya, where climate change has already hit very hard, and will continue to. Areas like this are the site of a lot of food production, and are important in both international exports and feeding the local population. We talk about the future effects of climate change a lot, but there doesn’t seem to be that realisation that it has already hit these poor areas that produce so much food first. Have we been sweeping over issues like this when we talk about climate change?

EN: My own husband is always ready to let you know that for example Kenya is going to be hit hard by climate change and water shortages. It’s going to hit us, then the world, really hard. And yet I don’t think that message is clear. Farmers from these regions can see that things are changing. But I don’t think they have a sense of the magnitude of what’s coming. What they’re seeing now is still just a fraction of what’s ahead, and this message is not being clearly communicated. Or if it’s communicated, it’s still not being broken down clearly enough. We need to take this message and frame it a little bit differently so that there are multiple ways of seeing it, 360 degree perspectives on the problems.

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“Scientists are well-protected, we can make mistakes. But when you’re dealing with a farmer, a mistake can be very costly. They don’t have a foundation that can remove risk.” (Image Credit: Esther Ngumbi, CC BY 2.0)

SP: You’ve spoken a lot about the need for new technology. Have you found a resistance to change of traditional methods?

EN: For some of the technologies, yes. Think of genetically modified crops for example. You look at some of these crops, they have the ability to resist drought, resist some of the common insect pests. But people still don’t appreciate it so much in Africa. And even in Europe. So yes, there is a resistance to technology.

As people develop these technologies I think it’s it’s important to incorporate the citizens that are being affected by this in that development. So that they see it right from the word go. So that they’re involved in the process of formulating this technology. To counteract their resistance we need to involve them as much as we can. I know sometimes it’s not possible, but where possible we should try to allow them to see it as it develops. Then they believe it. There’s no ulterior motive, we’re just authentically trying to push the technology and work together with them. A lot of resistance is probably because the technology was developed in a box, in a very secretive box. And then we come out and say look at all these solutions to your problems! But if the people who use that technology haven’t been involved, they’re skeptical. So it takes time to convince people, that new technology is worth adopting.

SP: Scientists are the opposite at times. Often we jump on any new technology, and then review whether we’re using it correctly five years down the track. Do you understand why farmers are skeptical from the get-go?

EN: Scientists are well-protected, we can make mistakes. But when you’re dealing with a farmer, a mistake can be very costly. They don’t have a foundation that can remove risk. In the lab we’re very protected, the safety standards are up to date, you won’t harm yourself. There’s a lot of safety, we’re not afraid. The risk part of it is taken away. So we get new technology, we’re keen to try it. But for a farmer, a mistake it can be very costly, so they’ll want to take it slowly. From our side, I believe in show and not tell. Give them a lot of demonstration and guidance. Show the impact of fertiliser, show them what X and Y technology can do. Then let them talk if they’re interested.

Let’s take GMOs as an example. You can show them that it’s still food, and they can eat it, you’re there with them. You’re not just sending them new crops and expecting them to plant them. But it’s not just the farmers we have to work with. It’s about identifying the leaders that are not afraid to try new things. The influencers in the governments.

SP: We’ve been talking about Africa having the potential to feed the world. With increased farming comes increased land use change, and fragmentation, something that the rest of the world has a poor history with. Could Africa show the world that it’s possible to farm without destroying ecosystems?

EN: I’m always saying that we don’t have to make the same mistakes that have been made before. We already have enough knowledge, evidence that we need to take the right path. And so yes, Africa has that potential. But at the same time, African leaders are still very naive with regards to the environment. Currently they’re letting in a lot of businesses from China, who just want to find new places to grow their food so they can export it back, without giving anything to local communities. So it will take really strong leadership to truly avoid making the same mistakes we have made before.

I definitely want to make sure we do it the right way. And I think now, it’s clear that the people are saying no to more fertilisers, to more deforestation to make way for food. But the leadership is not very strong. But what is making noise is the people talking, writing, getting their voices heard. And if that continues, when the African story is written it will be different to the rest of the world’s.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who just spent the afternoon helping his kid chant his way through his first Black Lives Matter protest and could not be prouder. You can read more about Sam’s research on his Ecology for the Masses profile here, and follow him on Twitter @samperrinNTNU.

Title Image Credit: Esther Ngumbi, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

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