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It’s Ghana at the end of the dry season, and only one sound fills the air: the crunching, cracking sound of groundnuts being shelled. Domogyelle Naalubaar and his family - every one of them, from grandma down to the toddler - are employed in the interminable business, methodically splitting the dusty shells, parting the two halves, and munching on the result as they go.
As they sit in the shade of a neem tree, the pile of meaty kernels and empty husks grows slowly at their feet. It’s easy to work out that groundnuts are a staple crop in Naalubaar’s household - and the households of most Ghanaian farmers for that matter.
But the fact that 80 percent of Ghana’s groundnut production takes place here in the Upper West and the neighboring Northern regions does not mean the crop is immune to the vagaries of an increasingly chaotic climate. Naalubaar notes that his harvest has become routinely threatened by a rainy season that is no longer reliable.
“I’ve been farming this same land for over 40 years now. By this time [early May] we would normally have crops in the ground already,” he says. “But in recent years the rains have been coming late and ending early. We can’t predict them like we used to.”
Naalubaar also has to wait to plant until well into the rainy season. “Otherwise there might be gaps of dry weather, and I risk my crop getting finished off before it even has a chance to get started,” he explains.
Research in progress by the CGIAR programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) is taking a look at what farmers in Ghana can - and are - doing to confront such challenges, and what obstacles might be standing in their way. For those on the front lines of climate change, climate-smart technologies and practices can facilitate adaptation and boost food security.
Naalubaar travelled south 10 years ago to look for work, and it was then that he was introduced to the improved “China” or Shitaochi variety of groundnut. Told they would mature several months earlier than the local variety he had always planted, he took a chance and brought a bag of them back to the Upper West, to his home in the village of Dazuuri.
“That growing season I planted them alongside my usual groundnuts, and I saw that the stories I had heard about the China nuts were true. I was so happy, because I was harvesting bagfuls of them long before my local seeds were ready to be pulled up. The rains ended early that year, like I had worried they would, and my crop of local groundnuts was lost. But because I had planted the China groundnuts, my family did not go hungry,” he says.
Every year since then, Naalubaar has planted the China groundnut variety. Sending the nearest child running for a sample, he holds out a handful of the magic kernels. The local variety he and his family members have been shelling is still piled up at his feet, and the beautiful deep purple kernels he holds in his hand make a sharp contrast.
“I also get more money for these at market,” he says. “The China groundnuts have a higher oil content than the local groundnuts, so I can sell them for six cedi a pound instead of five.” A difference of 50 cents a pound may seem like peanuts, but not when it’s your principle source of income for the year.
Barriers to adoption
Despite the keenness of Naalubaar and his neighbours to continue introducing early-maturing crop varieties, they have been slow to spread to under-developed areas and are thus unavailable to those that could most benefit from them.
Even Naalubaar continues to plant the under-performing local variety. “You can’t just throw all your resources into the one new idea,” he explains. “I have to spread my risks. Something might happen to the one variety, so I still plant both just in case.”
Improved seed varieties, in any case, can be difficult to track down, and for certain crops are even quite costly. Groundnut seeds in particular have several additional problems: their seed multiplication rate is low (think 100 seeds of maize produced for every one planted, compared to eight seeds of groundnut for every one planted), they’re bulky and expensive to transport, they rapidly lose their viability when stored for more than a year, and they are self-pollinating.
This last point means groundnut seed can be saved and reused for many growing seasons without much loss of genetic purity due to outcrossing - good for farmers, perhaps, but little incentive for private-sector seed companies to get involved in the groundnut trade.
On the other hand, public-sector seed agencies cannot keep up with the great demand for improved seed stock, and in West Africa, farmers continue to rely on old varieties, their own saved seed, or seed bought at the local market that is often of questionable origin.
A seed in the hand
Naalubaar’s China variety was introduced in Ghana over 40 years ago but still remains widely used, even though Ghanaian institutions have developed and released newer, improved versions in the intervening decades.
These things considered, a farmer’s adaptive capacity depends to a great extent on his or her ability to access improved seed varieties, especially in the case of hybrid or cross-pollinating crops (like maize and millet) that require a fresh supply of seed every year. Otherwise, farmers who have limited travel capabilities or contact with a reliable seed network must continue to depend on climatically vulnerable crop varieties.
And in situations such as Naalubaar’s, where saved seed represents a cornerstone of a household’s food security, institutional arrangements must be sensitive to farmers’ rights to preserve their own seed rather than rely on insufficient commercial sources.
Alternatives do exist in the form of seed fairs and seed banks that allow for farmer-to-farmer exchange of crop genetic material, and local village or community-based seed systems that charge entrepreneurial farmers with the in-situ production and distribution of improved varieties.
But in the meantime, Naalubaar will continue cracking open the same old China variety and hoping it can still keep pace with the ever more elusive rains.
Caity Peterson is a visiting researcher based at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia, working in the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Read about related ongoing CCAFS research in Ghana from the Systemic Integrated Adaptation (SIA) project, led by a team from Oxford University: From Wall St. to Farmers in Ghana: Finance Fundamentals Remain the Same.