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TGI-Led Research Finds Climate Change, Increasing Population Put Kenya at Risk of Famine

by Maggie Rotermund
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Maggie Rotermund
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ST. LOUIS – Research published in Outlook on Agriculture has shown that the population relative to available climate-suitable areas in Kenya has increased, posing a threat to the country’s economy and food security.

The study, “Spatial changes to climate suitability and availability of agropastoral farming systems across Kenya (1980-2020),” was published online on May 29.

The research team analyzed Kenya’s farming systems and climate zones between 1980-2020. Over that time, the population of Kenya more than tripled while climate-suitable areas for primary crops decreased.

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Increased dryness and higher temperatures are reducing productivity in agriculture and the increase in human population is limiting space for livestock productivity. In East Africa, climate change impacts agricultural suitability because rain-fed agriculture accounts for upwards of 95% of crop production.

“The climate crisis compromises food and water security, while threatening farmers’ livelihoods. This study quantified  climate change-induced cropland shrinkage, which is particularly alarming with the human population growing exponentially,” said Enbal Shacham, Ph.D., professor of behavioral science and health education at Saint Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice and acting director of strategic initiatives for the Taylor Geospatial Institute. “This research highlights these urgent problems in Kenya and in other agricultural regions across the world.” 

The first author is Ted J. Lawrence, a former Taylor Geospatial Institute post-doctoral fellow. Shacham is the paper’s senior author.

The research team looked at how trends changed over time and how the geographic distribution and arrangement of climate zones in Kenya shifted due to those trends. The team focused on Kenya because rain-fed agriculture is central to the country’s economy and it is a key food-producing country for the East African region.

Primary crops grown in the region include maize, wheat, rice, tea, coffee, sugarcane, sisal and cotton. Dairy farming makes up a large portion of livestock production.

The research found that climate change is a major threat to Kenyan farming systems with seasonal changes in precipitation and temperature. Those changes are leading farmers to look for new farming and animal husbandry techniques.

Climate-suitable areas over the study period decreased. Those decreases included a 13% decrease in ranching; a 21% decrease in dairying; a 24% decrease in mixed crops and a 28% decrease in mixed crops and dairying.

The research team created climate reference maps and assessed temperature zones and precipitation patterns within each zone.

The researchers reviewed data from a variety of sources, including:

Agro-climate suitability shifted across Kenya throughout the study period, with climates suitable areas for all primary crops decreasing 28% between 1980 and 2020. Rice saw the largest decrease (-54%), followed by sugarcane, (-43%), tea (-37%), sisal (-34%), wheat (-29%), maize (-28%) and Arabica coffee (-4%). Areas suitable for Robusta coffee increased by 6% and areas good for growing cotton increased by 30%.

Agro-pastoral areas in Kenya are under increasing pressure from climate change, the research team found, and that may impact food and livelihood security, health and well-being, and the overall ecosystem. Climate change, along with a rising population, creates a risk of famine.

Information on climate change and population growth in this paper can be used to help develop policy and aid in the effort to reach the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Additional authors include Justin M. Vilbig, a geospatial data scientist in SLU’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and TGI; Geoffrey Kangogo, a Ph.D. student in SLU’s College for Public Health and Social Justice; Eric M. Fevre, University of Liverpool, UK, and International Livestock Research Institute, Kenya; Sharon L. Deem, Institute for Conservation Medicine at the Saint Louis Zoo; Ilona Gluecks, International Livestock Research Institute, Kenya; and Vasit Sagan, Ph.D., associate professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Saint Louis University and acting director of TGI.

This work was supported in part by the Taylor Geospatial Institute and a seed research grant from the Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University in St. Louis. Furthermore, this research was also supported in part by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Department for International Development, the Economic & Social Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council, and the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory, under the Zoonoses and Emerging Livestock Systems (ZELS) programme, grant reference BB/L019019/1. 

This study also received support from the CGIAR One Health initiative “Protecting Human Health Through a One Health Approach,” which was supported by contributors to the CGIAR Trust Fund. The authors thank the University of Liverpool’s Open Access team for support of the CC-BY open access license for this article.

The Saint Louis University-led TGI consortium also includes the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Harris-Stowe State University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Missouri University of Science & Technology, University of Missouri-Columbia, University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Washington University in St. Louis. Collectively, these institutions encompass more than 5,000 faculty and 100,000 students. 

TGI aims to advance geospatial science through multi-institutional, interdisciplinary collaborations to create innovative, real-world solutions to grand societal challenges. It supports a collaborative research and training environment and while shaping the future of geospatial science in the U.S.

Saint Louis University

Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers more than 15,200 students a rigorous, transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better, more just place.