How are we going to produce enough food, in the face of climate change, to feed a growing global population in the years to come?

This is a question that is occupying scientists and farmers across the globe, as we look to ways to adapt our farming practices and the crops we grow, in response to these weather changes.

Food production across the globe is already affected by global warming, and Irish agriculture is no exception.

Teagasc predicted last year that yields of winter wheat and spring barley could decrease by more than 10% in many parts of the country, and said that the increasing unpredictability of the seasons was making it harder for farmers to plan for the future.

Away from these shores, these issues are being debated and discussed with equal vigour.

At meetings of development organisation Self Help Africa, of which I am a director, climate-related issues are taking on increasing significance with every passing year. The organisation’s newly published five-year strategy places the changing climate front and centre of its work.

It is fascinating to observe how scientists are looking both to the past and to the future to answer how farmers are going to feed the world in years to come.


The US global food security envoy Carey Fowler recently signalled an about-turn in future American policy, advocating a return to promoting various traditional and indigenous crops – including cowpeas, cassava, and millet – that previous US policies had helped sideline.

He announced a US$100m investment in the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS), and said the US was working with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the African Union to secure further investment in a range of crops that had been neglected more recently.

While maize was regarded as the solution to many food scarcities in previous decades, this is no longer the case. Indeed, a host of recent studies point to the vulnerability of rain-fed maize in Africa to climate change, with some experts predicting a decline in crop-yields in southern Africa of between 18% and 30% by the end of this decade, if new drought tolerant varieties and new farming methods are not fast-tracked.

The promotion of traditional crops was also a talking point at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, when the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, enthusiastically described the pivot to alternate crops as “genuinely revolutionary”.


Meanwhile, in the UK, a 300-year-old collection at London’s Natural History Museum is currently being trawled by scientists seeking clues regarding how we may feed people in the future. Scientists at the museum have been combing through 12,000 specimens of dried wheat leaves, stems and ears of grain to try to identify varieties containing the genetic secrets to hardier varieties that would cope better with changing climate and the pests and diseases of tomorrow.

Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum collection features specimens that date from the 1700s, including one of-interest variety that was collected on Captain James Cook’s first voyage to Australia in 1770. The spindly grass-like seed is totally different to the wheat we produce today and is of interest to scientists exactly for that reason.

This news reminded me of teff. This is a particular species of grass-like grain that Self Help Africa has been promoting in Ethiopia, and which I encountered on a visit to the country shortly before the pandemic.

Good-quality seed stock of traditional Ethiopian teff, believed to have first been cultivated close to 6,000 years ago, is now being multiplied at grassroots level by local seed producers because it has characteristics that allow it to grow in conditions and places where other grains struggle.

Joe Healy speaks to farmers in Ethiopia.

I remember meeting a mother-of-four in Ambelta village in southern Ethiopia who is earning a living growing teff seed. Tsedu Behutiyo told me she produced teff seed and sold it through her local co-operative to hundreds of farmers across the region.

In total, Self Help Africa has trained 114 farmers in the Ambelta area alone as teff seed producers.

Native to Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea, its shallow fibrous roots form a massive root system that make the plant resistant to both drought and waterlogging.

Across it’s African programmes, Self Help Africa is also championing other old crops, including cassava, as an alternative food crop for people.

While cassava is regarded as ‘a poor man’s crop’ in many African cultures, recent plant breeding programmes that developed new high yielding drought- and disease-resistant varieties have allowed cassava to make a comeback.

The crop was first introduced to Africa from Brazil in the 1600s and has shown a resilience to hot dry conditions where maize can struggle.

As part of a multi-faceted programme that has been operating for the past six years in western Kenya, Self Help Africa has trained close to 28,000 farmers as cassava producers. This has helped address some of the structural and cultural issues that had given the crop its ‘poor man’ status in the past.

The UN agency highlighted the potential of millets to contribute to sustainable food systems and economic development

Cassava mills and processing plants have been established and TV and radio broadcasts have promoted the positive characteristics of cassava flour as an alternative to other cereals.

As a result, businesses have sprung up that are milling and processing cassava before selling it to a host of food value chains, including bakeries, flour manufacturers and breweries – allowing the ‘poor man’s tuber’ to become a valuable source of household income. Today, this work is being supported by Irish Aid.

In the face of changing climate, more innovative and nuanced approaches to food production are emerging in Africa, as growing conditions become more inhospitable with each passing generation.

International Year of Millets

The FAO declared 2023 the ‘International Year of Millets’ precisely for this reason, arguing that millets, in their diversity, could provide another affordable source of nutrients as these grain crops could be grown in various adverse climates and arid regions with minimal external inputs.

The UN agency highlighted the potential of millets to contribute to sustainable food systems and economic development across the globe and spoke particularly of the valuable role millet could play in poorer regions that are being worst affected by climate change.

Their campaign was an illustration that there is no single solution to the question of how we are going to feed the world in generations to come.

Rather, it demonstrated that we must look both to the past and the future – to science, innovation and technology – if we are to fire up a green revolution for the 21st century and meet the food production challenges that we are facing today and will undoubtedly continue to face into the future.