In 1992, 172 governments participated in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, producing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The international environmental treaty, while not itself setting any limits on greenhouse gas emissions, provided a framework for producing future protocols that set mandatory emission limits. From then on, the Conference of Parties (COP) met regularly at various cities, producing important climate treaties like the Kyoto Protocol. In late 2011, the COP met again in Durban, South Africa, to discuss three main issues: future US commitments to emission reduction, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Cancun agreements discussed at the previous meeting. However, expectations for the Durban meeting ran low, as the two countries with the highest emission levels, the United States and China, refused to take leadership in commitments to the UNFCCC protocols. Without the support of those two countries, other major countries like Japan and Canada were unlikely to join in a second round of the protocols.

Climate change continues to pose a significant global challenge. In 2007, the IPCC released a comprehensive report on climate change, projecting drastic climate change within this century. The report predicted extreme weather changes, such as ice cap melting, long droughts, and flooding. The UN World Meteorological Association reported that greenhouse gas volumes reached a record high in 2010, with CO2 levels increasing to 389 ppm in 2010 from 280 ppm in 1750.

One of climate change’s biggest global impacts is on agriculture, especially in developing regions like those of sub-Saharan Africa. Climate change threatens food security in several ways. For example, increased temperatures eventually reduce crop yields in the long run. Even if certain crops could grow more effectively in warmer temperatures, the overall net effect of unbalanced temperature increase causes a decrease in desirable crop yields. A report by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that while climate change tended to hurt agricultural output for all countries, developing countries suffered especially sharper decreases in crop yields compared to developed countries. In particular, crops requiring irrigation took the hardest hits, given that both unpredictable precipitation and temperature increases require more effective irrigation systems. The International Water Management Institute found that by 2025, the global percentage of people living in water-stressed basins will increase from thirty-eight percent to sixty-four percent, due to warmer climate. Increased temperatures also promote weed and pest proliferation, adding to the burden of sustaining crop yields. With these changing factors driven by climate change, agricultural adaptations become increasingly imperative.

Already, population growth projections point to the need for agricultural reform. The United Nations Population Division projects that by 2050, the human population will range from 7.96 billion to 10.46 billion. Other projections calculate that the global cereal and livestock production would need to increase by at least sixty percent by 2050 to support such an increase in population. Considering that agriculture employs approximately sixty percent of the workforce in Africa, and constitutes on average thirty percent of its gross domestic product, these changes will require significant investments in agricultural research and development for African countries.

One important response has been the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), particularly crops whose genetic material has been changed to increase resistance to extreme environmental conditions. In July 2011, Kenya legalized the importation of GMOs in response to ongoing famine and food shortages. In doing so, Kenya became the fourth African country to open its doors to genetically modified agriculture, following South Africa, Egypt, and Burkina Faso.

This second Green Revolution occurring in Africa offers many benefits to its agriculture. Genetically modified crops are more resistant to harsher environmental conditions such as drought, extreme temperatures, and increased salinity. In South Africa, farmers grow pest-resistant GM cotton and herbicide-tolerant maize, which reduces issues with weed and pest problems. Genetically engineered crops are also more resistant to pests and diseases, reducing the need to spread harmful pesticides for chemical protection. These improvements promise a successful future for African agriculture, supporting an increasing population in unfriendly climates.

Nevertheless, there are several larger reasons explaining why genetically modified crops are insufficient to solve Africa’s food security problem. While the primary users of these genetically modified seeds will be small African farmers, the producers of these organisms are primarily large Western multinational corporations. Large multinational biotechnology corporations like Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred specialize in providing hybrid and genetically modified seeds for agriculture. The incorporation of these new biotechnology products threatens many aspects of traditional African agriculture. While African farmers originally upheld a traditional process of saving and sharing seeds with neighbors and friends for the next season, most GM seed manufacturing companies forbid such practices, and force African farmers to acquiesce to such demands for access to seeds. Additionally, the genetic modifications are nearly all patented by these transnational organizations, forcing farmers to pay royalties every cycle.

As the effects of climate change continue to place stress on African agriculture, it becomes more important to increase adaptability and reform. Despite the optimistic possibilities for a second Green Revolution, the relation between African farmers and multinational biotechnology corporations suggests there are reasons for concerns about the future.

Staff Writer Scott Zhuge