Tens of thousands of Uganda's tea producers – many of them Fairtrade certified – will need to take decisive action to protect their crop and their livelihoods if the latest climate change predictions come true.
A new report released today by climate scientists at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, by its Spanish acronym) shows that if average temperatures rise by an expected 2.3 degrees Celsius by 2050, some of Uganda's most lucrative tea producing areas could be completely wiped off the map. Many producers could face steep declines in productivity as soon as 2020.
Based on the combined results of 18 climate and two crop prediction models, the Future Climate Scenarios for Uganda's Tea Growing Areas report adds to the growing body of research into the potential impact of climate change on agriculture in the developing world. It looks at the effect of rising temperatures on Uganda’s booming multi-million dollar tea industry, which produces some of the highest quality teas in the world, employs over 60,000 small farmers, and supports the livelihoods of up to half a million people. The United Kingdom is the world’s largest consumer of high-quality East African tea.
Low altitude, high risk
With the majority of Ugandan tea produced in warmer, relatively low altitude areas on the margin of what the crop can tolerate, the industry – which includes farmers, pickers and processors - is already highly vulnerable to even small changes in temperature. As both temperatures and average rainfall rise, producers are likely to suffer a slump in yields, and an increased likelihood of attacks from pests and diseases.
The study, commissioned by the UK-based Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation and German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), found that by 2020, an expected one-degree Celsius rise in average temperature could significantly reduce tea "suitability" – the capacity of the crop to produce acceptable yields. While some cooler areas are likely to experience improved tea growing conditions, by 2050 suitability of all areas could plummet as temperatures rise by, on average, 2.3 degrees Celsius, with the optimum tea producing zone expected to both shrink and shift uphill to cooler areas.
Highly vulnerable are the well-known Fairtrade tea producing areas of Mabale, Mpanga, Igara and Kayonza, in the west of the country, where the study predicts that production could be reduced to a narrow band of "marginal suitability" by 2050.
The report reveals that consequences for Ugandan tea farmers are likely to be even more severe than those in neighbouring Kenya. A study released in June showed that into the likely impact of climate change on tea production in Kenya, which also saw suitability take a serious hit.
"The results were a shock," said CIAT climate scientist Dr. Peter Laderach, one of the research leaders. "We thought those from Kenya were severe, but in Uganda it’s even more serious. Concerted effort to adapt production now will be crucial to help minimize the risk to one of the country’s most important cash crops, and the hundreds of thousands of people who rely on it."
Both reports include climate assessments for possible alternative crops; in Uganda these include cassava, banana, pineapple, maize, passion fruit, and citrus fruits. By 2020, all are expected to be potentially viable options, but by 2050, only banana is thought to be resilient enough, with the report highlighting the need for further investigation.
"Helping farmers find practical, productive and profitable alternatives is a great way of spreading the risk of tea production. Otherwise, it’s logical to expect tea production will shift uphill into cooler, more suitable zones. Theoretically, this could result in the clearing of forests and protected areas at a significant environmental cost."
Despite the alarming results, Laderach was keen to stress the need for the work to be part of broader series of studies into the factors affecting tea production, to ensure farmers and policymakers have a more detailed picture. "There is always a degree of uncertainty if you’re predicting tomorrow’s weather, let alone the climate of the future," he said. "Farming systems also are, by their nature, complex and constantly in flux; there are many more factors at play than climate alone.
"But these results, when combined with other authoritative studies, should help to ensure that the need for action is taken seriously, and that the response of farmers and producer organizations in both Kenya and Uganda is informed, measured and in keeping with prevailing farm and market conditions."
The Cafédirect Producers' Foundation has already met with farmer groups from Uganda and Kenya to discuss the implications of the CIAT reports, and to encourage their involvement in developing sustainable options for adapting to climate change, and reducing the environmental footprint of tea production.
"Most tea farmers in East Africa are aware that the climate is changing," said Programme Manager Kenny Ewan. "They might not think of it as part of a global phenomenon, but over the years they’ve noticed that it's, for example, getting warmer, or that the rains are changing."
"The report has certainly helped us to show farmers some of the science behind their local knowledge."
Together with the introduction of more resilient tea varieties and improved on-farm practices, the Foundation is encouraging smallholders to develop their own, locally appropriate, adaptation and mitigation methods. These include efforts to reforest hillsides and protect water sources, as well as planting kitchen gardens – small-scale, intensively managed plots of food crops close to home – to give farmers alternative sources of food and income. It is also working ways to improve energy efficiency both on-farm and in tea processing factories.
Read the full report from here