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FEATURE: Climate compatible agriculture – a smart approach to poverty reduction in Africa


Half of the world’s poor people have livelihoods that are dependent on agriculture, so maintaining a sustainable, productive agricultural sector sits at the heart of poverty reduction. Yet the 2008 World Development Report showed that for the poorest, GDP growth in agriculture is about four times more effective in raising incomes than GDP growth in other sectors. The challenges of feeding a global population – likely to peak at 9 billion – are exacerbated by climate change, and nowhere more so than in Africa. Climate change is likely to lead to average crop losses of 10-20% by 2050 in the region, and will add to the vulnerabilities of millions of Africans.

Recognising the challenges and opportunities around agriculture and climate change, African Ministers of Agriculture met in South Africa in September to push for action on Climate Smart Agriculture. With the forthcoming UNFCCC CoP17 being held on African soil for the first time, there is a strong momentum to address the synergies between the sustainable intensification of agriculture, building resilience to climate change, and reducing the sector’s significant emissions.  Many understand that we need to achieve the triple wins of climate compatible agricultural development. But what are the necessary ingredients to reach this goal? What actions can be taken now?  How far is progress dependent on the CoP?   What are the gaps in knowledge, policy and practice?

There are many examples of triple wins for agriculture – where food security and productivity gain, increased resilience and emissions reductions can occur simultaneously. The spread of agroforestry and shade trees in Niger, as well as the uptake of conservation tillage from Zambia to Brazil and Canada, are two large-scale examples. But increased attention to soil fertility management and land restoration, development of drought-resistant crops, examples of voluntary carbon market schemes for improved farm and watershed management, and weather-based crop insurance all demonstrate that there are early wins to be made from climate compatible agriculture.  None of these actions is dependent on a global climate change deal, but all would be assisted by an agreement to accelerate financing for adaptation and climate resilience (including in agriculture and associated infrastructure), and by opening up options for carbon markets.  Developing mechanisms that enable smallholders to access these funds will be important.   However, the cash payments farmers receive from donors, or the sale of carbon credits for reduced emissions. offer modest incentives compared to the productivity gains from adopting many of these improved technologies.

In Africa, sustainable agriculture is squarely part of the green growth agenda – with 60% of its workforce and 30% of GDP derived on average from the sector, it represents real opportunities for growth. Visionary leadership by public and private actors is important to build confidence and leverage private finance into the sector. One large-scale example is the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania, which is seeking to cluster investment in agriculture. The African Green Revolution Alliance (AGRA) is another initiative promoting productive investment in small-scale agriculture.

Agriculture is unlike other sectors in being both highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, but also a significant emitter of greenhouse gases (globally 14%, but up to 75% of emissions from agricultural-dependent economies such as Ethiopia). While the importance of food security is recognised in the draft text of the Long Term Cooperative Actions (LCA) of the UNFCCC, there has been little progress where the negotiations have explicitly focused on agriculture. In Cancun there was no progress, as a range of sensitivities emerged around trade, market mechanisms, agricultural emissions from Annex 1 countries, indigenous knowledge, MRV and safeguards for small-scale farmers. A series of African and international meetings, research and dialogues are starting to bridge the gap between negotiators and those supporting the agricultural sector. The African Agricultural Ministers called for the establishment of a programme of work that covers adaptation and mitigation in agriculture, for the first time expressing a collective voice on this issue. The Communiqué was subsequently endorsed by the African Environment Ministers’ meeting at AMCEN in Mali in September, but they will now need to convince their governments to take this into the CoP so that work can begin to look at agriculture within the international agreement.  A similar process was set off in Bali around forests, which led to consensus about the REDD mechanism.

South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation and Co-Chair of the Durban CoP, Maite Nkoana Mashabane , wants a comprehensive, ambitious and balanced outcome in December. Recognising the importance of agriculture to Africa, she is committed to the sector featuring in the outcome of the talks.  As Minister Mashabane said, ‘we borrowed the land in trust from future generations’ – we therefore need to act.

New public and private investments in agriculture that build resilience and take up the opportunities of new climate finance will be needed to rise to the challenge of climate compatible agriculture. A CoP that supports this sort of agriculture could provide a helpful stimulus. More important will be a strongly led policy and institutional environment, while adequate finance and investment in research to address knowledge gaps will be needed to operationalise new approaches to agriculture.

CDKN, together with the World Bank and Government of the Netherlands, will be hosting an international conference – the ‘Global Science Conference on Climate Smart Agriculture’, between 24 and 26 October to gather the current state of knowledge and identify gaps. The conference will gather best practice, and address issues such as soil and water management, crop and livestock breeding, greenhouse gas emissions, climate risk management in agriculture, institutional arrangements, monitoring, and review and verification.

Sam Bickersteth is Chief Executive of CDKN

Photo: Kenya – Ngurumo Village, CGIAR

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