A defining characteristic of many rainfed tropical agricultural systems is their vulnerability to weather variability. There is now increased attention paid to climate-agriculture links as the world is focused on climate change. This has shown the need for increased understanding of current and future climate and the links to agricultural investment decisions, particularly farmers’ decisions, and that integrated strategies for coping with climate change need to start with managing current climate risk. Research, largely from an Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA) project to demonstrate the value of such increased understanding, is presented in this issue of the journal. Key lessons from this research are as follows:
- 1.Statistical methods of analysis of historical climate data that are relevant to agriculture need not be complex. The most critical point is to describe the climate in terms of events of direct relevance to farming (such as the date of the start of a rainy season) rather than simple standard measures (such as annual total rainfall).
- 2.Analysis requires access to relevant data, tools and expertise. Daily climate data, both current and historical, are primarily the responsibility of national meteorological services (NMS). Accessing such data, particularly daily data, is not always easy. Including staff from the NMS as research partners, not just data providers, can reduce this problem.
- 3.Farmers’ perceptions of climate variation, risk and change are complex. They are keenly aware of variability, but there is evidence that they over-estimate risks of negative impacts and thereby fail to make use of good conditions when they occur. There is also evidence that multiple causes of changes are confounded, so farmers who observe decreasing crop production may not be distinguishing between rainfall change and declining soil fertility or other conditions. Hence any project working with farmers’ coping and adaptation to climate must also have access to analyses of observed climate data from nearby recording stations.
- 4.Mechanisms for reducing and coping with risks are exemplified in pastoral systems that exist in the most variable environments. New approaches to risk transfer, such as index-based insurance, show potential for positive impact.
- 5.Skilful seasonal forecasts, which give a better indication of the coming season than a simple average, would help farmers take decisions for the coming cropping season. Increasing meteorological knowledge shows that such forecasting is possible for parts of Africa. There are institutional barriers to farmers accessing and using the forecast information. Furthermore, the skill of the forecasts is currently limited so that there are maybe still only a few rational choices for a farmer to make on the basis of a forecast.
With the justified current interest in climate and agriculture, all stakeholders including researchers, data providers, policy developers and extension workers will need to work together to ensure that interventions are based on a correct interpretation of a valid analysis of relevant data.