EDITORIAL COMMENT: Farmers must adapt to climate change

drought_1445578bThe weather forecast released by the Meteorological Services Department last week showing that most parts of the country will experience drought has severe implications not only on agriculture and food security, but also on energy.

It is, however, not all gloom as the northern parts are forecast to receive normal to above normal rainfall. It is, however, the drought conditions that are a serious cause for concern for a country that has just experienced another poor rainfall season.

Farmers have to be guided by the agro-ecological regions in making cropping decisions in order to salvage something from a bad season. This calls for the involvement of agricultural extension officers to provide agronomic advice to farmers.

We have been alerted in time on the rainfall patterns and distribution which do not augur well for the agricultural season and all efforts should now be directed at ensuring that farmers make the best decisions on crop and variety selection. All hope is not yet lost as the correct cropping decisions could make the difference between a disaster and a manageable drought situation. This is a weather phenomenon affecting the region over which we have limited choices.

We need to see agricultural extension officers being active on the farms helping farmers with crop variety selection. These officers have been absent on the farms for a long time, spending most of their time working on their plots and being paid for that, something unacceptable by any measure for a country that prides itself on agricultural productivity.

Now they should make their impact felt by helping farmers with all the extension services they require to grow crops and achieve food security in a season where not much is expected owing to drought. It makes no sense for farmers in natural regions 4 and 5 where below normal rainfall and drought are forecast, to grow long maturing maize varieties. Instead, farmers in such regions must concentrate their efforts on small grains, such as sorghum, millet and rapoko and if they decide to be adventurous, opt for short season and quick maturing maize varieties.

This kind of advice needs to come from agronomists and weather specialists and now is the time for that. Already, farmers have started buying crop inputs in readiness for the season and some may already have bought the wrong varieties because of lack of knowledge.

It must be borne in mind that while farming is depended on rainfall, it is to a very large extent, also dependent on correct information. Farmers need the information, which they can only get from agronomists.

We have in recent years seen rainfall variability adversely affecting rain-fed agriculture and this is being aggravated by climate change, making calls for farmers to adopt small grains commonsensical with each new season.

With climate change, the amount of rainfall will continue to decline, which means focus should be on drought-tolerant and quick maturity crop varieties, not to mention the importance of irrigation development.

It is a pity that our farmers seem obsessed with growing maize even in regions where it is known the crop will not do well, understandably so because maize is our adopted staple food, but we should not force a crop in a region where it will not thrive.

The Minister of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development, Dr Joseph Made, has continually urged farmers, even in regions that are assured of normal to above normal rainfall, to devote some hectares of their land to small grains for food security reasons. Those in dry regions have no luxury to experiment with maize, but small grains.

Ignoring such advice will certainly result in food shortages at household level, which is not good for economic growth given that agricultural growth is key to combating poverty.

With hydroelectricity dependent on water levels in our dams, the drought forecast bodes ill for our electricity generation capacity. Already we are experiencing power outages because of low water levels in Kariba Dam.

However, this what it is and as a nation we must come up with mitigatory measures on both fronts – agriculture and energy.