Officials predict that the food security of many Africans will depend on sharing genetic resources with other nations in the continent after a new study determined that rapidly rising temperatures in Africa threaten to scorch local varieties of maize and other food staples.
Researchers at Stanford University's Program on Food Security and the Environment and the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust conducted the study.
They warn that long-standing neglect of African crop collections held in genebanks means that breeders today don't have access to all of the varieties of Africa's primary cereal crops like maize, millet and sorghum, which are likely to be most helpful in allowing farmers to adapt to climate change.
"When we looked where temperatures are headed, we found that for the majority of Africa's farmers, climate change will rapidly move conditions beyond the range of anything they've experienced," said Marshall Burke, Program Manager at the Program on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University.
"A central challenge will be finding crop varieties that can thrive - or at least survive - at these hotter temperatures," he added.
Many African farmers could potentially find crop varieties in other African countries where current temperatures and conditions are similar to what they will face in the future.
But, researchers are particularly concerned about six countries, namely, Senegal, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Sierra Leone, where future conditions will be unlike anything African farmers have ever encountered.
They said that immediate action is needed to develop new crop varieties that will allow these countries to adapt.
Burke and his colleagues report that by 2050, due to global warming, temperatures during the growing season in nearly all African countries will be "hotter than any year in historical experience" for that region.
Seeking a potential solution to this problem, the researchers documented the "novel" climates expected to emerge in each African country by 2050 and compared them with present conditions across the continent.
What they found is that for the majority of countries, while those novel climates will be different than anything they've ever experienced within their borders, in many cases, the climates will be similar to what exists today in other nations.
For example, in Lesotho, a country with one of Africa's coolest climates, farmers may find their local varieties of maize suffering in the increasing heat.
The answer to their problems might lie in the maize varieties now being cultivated in Mali, one of Africa's hottest countries.
The study concludes that for most countries, there are solutions available, if the collective plant genetic resources of Africa can be effectively "managed and shared."