December 12, 2017 / 3:11 PM / in 6 months

New crops, technology needed to help farmers adapt to rising heat: Gates Foundation

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - New technologies are the key to helping Africa and Asia’s smallholder farmers adapt to climate change, said the Gates Foundation as it pledged funding to research new crops that can thrive amid rising heat, drought and erratic rainfall.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation unveiled a $300-million plan to help farmers on Tuesday, with funds going to the development of crops that could cope with rising temperatures, wild weather and attacks from new pests and diseases.

Smallholders produce up to 80 percent of food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Many are reliant on rain-fed agriculture and are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, which is expected to hit crop yields and make the price of food more volatile, the FAO said in a 2016 report.

The funding “is an opportunity to develop solutions, knowledge innovation, products, and technologies that can assist smallholders become more resilient and improve their lives and livelihoods”, said Nick Austin, the Gates Foundation’s director of agricultural development.

Projected increases in temperatures would reduce the output of maize, a staple crop, by between a quarter and a half, Austin said.

Smallholders are already seeing some of the impacts of climate change but their ability to respond is limited, he said.

Rising temperatures and unpredictable weather also raise the threat of new pests and disease hitting harvests.

“We’re seeing new diseases appearing in the African continent…,” Austin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from the “One Planet” Summit in Paris where the three-year plan was launched.

“(They are) diseases that affect cassava, sweet potato and yam that provide the bulk of the starch intake for 800 million people in west and central Africa.”

The Gates Foundation said it has committed more than $2 billion to agricultural development efforts mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

While new funding is welcome, it is important the money reaches the right places, said Divine Ntiokam, founder of the Cameroon-based Climate Smart Agriculture Youth Network. 

“Many young people (in Africa) say they can’t do farming because they don’t have access to funding,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the FAO headquarters in Rome.

“If all these donors can actually go straight to the smallholder farmers, it’s going to be much more impactful.”

Reporting By Thin Lei Win, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org

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