Durban climate change conference: why farming is the biggest issue for Africa

| 4th November 2011
Agriculture in Africa
A new movement is aiming to challenge the scourge of industrial agribusiness across Africa

Campaigners are hoping that agriculture will feature heavily in Africa's COP


With little hope of a binding deal on climate change at the latest UN summit, campaigners are hoping that Africa's COP will tackle the issue that plagues the continent most: agriculture

Africa is a continent where 70 per cent of people depend on rain-fed agriculture as a primary food source. With scientists predicting an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts like this year's in the Horn of Africa - the worst in six decades - it's clear that climate change poses a growing threat to food security.   

For this reason, advocates and civil society groups are campaigning for the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which starts in Durban, South Africa on November 28, to have a firm emphasis on agriculture. If this 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) goes anything like the last three meetings in Bali, Copenhagen, and most recently, Cancun, not much will come in the way of carbon reduction targets, which is the main focus.

Developed and developing countries are gridlocked over committing to target reductions of greenhouse gases and a renewal of the Kyoto protocol.

However, campaigners are hoping that agriculture can become a major part of the climate change dialogue at COP-17, as it has been noticeably absent before. They say a scheme similar to the one ratified at COP-15 in Coppenhagen to address the carbon emissions made by deforestation and forest degradation (known as REDD) needs to be made for agriculture. 

Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, CEO of the South Africa-based Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) says that agriculture represents an opportunity overcome the pessimistic expectations of COP-17.

'On the reduction of emissions, it has been long, 20 year journey—up to now the USA is still not part of Kyoto—so let's harvest some of the low hanging fruit,' Sibanda says. 'There are other things that can be agreed upon which are critical and will give us quick returns, like agriculture.'

Nowhere is the link between agriculture and global climate change as pronounced as in Africa, where changing patterns in temperature and rainfall threaten a population that is expected to swell to two billion by 2050.  'The relationship between climate change and agriculture is a two-way street,' a 2008 UN report on agriculture states. 'Agriculture contributes to climate change in several major ways and climate change in general adversely affects agriculture.'

However, as Greenpeace Africa campaigner Olivia Langhoff points out, agriculture has the potential to mitigate the negative effects of climate change, not just exacerbate them.

'Agriculture can be a huge polluter but it doesn't have to be, it can be a carbon sink, it can be actually producing agro-biodiversity,' Langhoff said. 'Economically speaking, absolutely the same is true. You can use agriculture to actually encourage a green development pathway for many communities and many countries in Africa.'

The type of agriculture that Sibanda and a growing group of backers—including South Africa’s agriculture minister, the president of COP-17, and various civil society groups—are supporting is not simply about increasing yields and maximising efficiency. They are promoting what is termed climate smart agriculture (CSA), an approach that incorporates traditional agro-ecological methods—such as crop rotation, mulching, and low-tillage land management—to promote the resilience of natural systems and decrease the greenhouse gas emissions associated with industrial farming methods.


What will come of the Durban summit?

There is little opposition to CSA as a strategy to face food security issues in Africa and globally, however there also appears to be little consensus as to what specific targets should come out of COP-17. Other than a side-event that will specifically address agriculture scheduled for December 3, there is no official item on the COP-17 agenda mentioning agriculture.

South African Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat Pettersson says her goal for COP-17 is simple. 'We simply want nothing more than one sentence which says that there has to be work done for CSA,' Pettersson told the Ecologist. 'Remember agriculture has never before been in the context of climate change [negotiations] so just getting our foot in the door is the main objective of COP-17.'

The minister remarked that the she hopes a more detailed action plan - one that outlines the science, technology and funding behind CSA - will be laid out by nations attending the Rio 20 conference next summer. FANRPAN CEO Sibanda thinks more decisive action should be taken. 'There is already a global agreement that food security is a global issue,' Sibanda told the Ecologist. 'We already have a lot of sentences on agriculture and food security but what we need out of Durban is a work program dedicated to agriculture to reinvigorate the sector and not treat it the same way as the transport and aviation sectors.'

Greenpeace's Langhoff hopes that South Africa will use COP-17 as an opportunity to emerge as a leader in agriculture. She said that it must become a priority for African nations to put farmers, not agribusiness, first. 

Is the World Bank welcome?

The chorus of advocates for CSA methods is not just limited to civil society groups and government ministers.

The World Bank has backed the idea of farmers adapting to climate change via agro-ecological methods. Jamal Saghir, World Bank Director for Sustainable Development in the Africa cites success stories such as in Rwanda, where potato farmers were able to increase their harvests by more than 50 per cent by improving rainfall management.

Saghir said that Durban is a crucial moment for agriculture to enter the global climate change dialogue. 'A few years ago, the focus on deforestation and degradation was unthinkable; today it is central to the discussions about climate change,' Saghir said. 'We believe the time is opportune to recognise the potential of climate-smart agriculture to tackle climate change.'

However, some believe that the World Bank support for CSA, far from signaling a wholesale endorsement of small-scale farming practises, is merely a token project. The World Bank, as well as other international development institutions such as the IMF, are known for providing loans and financial assistance to developing nations for large-scale agricultural projects and for encouraging development through the export of cash crops, all of which rely on fossil-fuel intensive farming methods.

'If it is a complete change of tune and not being treated as a niche pet project it is absolutely welcome because the future of farming lies in ecological farming,' says Greenpeace's Langhoff. 'But with the World Bank, and lots of international finance institutions and development agencies, the majority of investment is actually going into the traditional, industrial, technological fixes and then you have nice window dressings or shop windows for the beautiful, sweet, small projects. What we need is not more window dressings.'

Pettersson says that regardless of whether the support from the World Bank is long-term or not, she views their endorsement as a positive step. 'Agriculture is the mainstay of the African economy and we cannot sacrifice support because of reputational risks of the World Bank,' the minister said. 'We're always saying "Why doesn’t the World Bank come to party? Why doesn’t the World Bank assist us?" And now they’re coming to the party for small holder farmers and now we’re questioning them.'

Director Saghir of the World Bank told the Ecologist that the World Bank endorsement of CSA does not mean that the institution does not support agricultural exports or other forms of technology that could also improve agricultural yields. 'The World Bank supports agriculture as an instrument for development, and this entails improved food security at the household level, higher incomes for African farmers ... and agricultural exports where good opportunities exist,' Saghir said. 'Mulching, composting, and rotational grazing are appropriate in many places, and so are investments in irrigation, water harvesting and storage … and a host of innovations and investments.'

Sibanda of FANRPAN echoed Minister Pettersson's acceptance of the World Bank and said she hopes it will help broaden the reach of CSA. 'I believe anything that puts food first is good for everybody. So I think it is a good thing and we're excited that the World Bank has embraced the CSA initiative and we are hoping that it becomes not just an Africa appeal but a global appeal.'

Getting to farmers on the ground

Changing the international dialogue from industrialised farming to small-scale, agroecological methods is a big step, but getting the information to farmers on the ground remains an largely unmet challenge. Minister Pettersson spoke about the difficulty of getting farmers who are struggling  to meet their basic needs to think about the need to face climate change in their farming practises, but she also characterised it as an opportunity.

'If people are eking out a measly existence, for them, the emphasis and the most important point would be to put a plate of food on the table,' Pettersson said. 'If you have that kind of reality in developing countries, then climate change is not going to come a real priority. So we need to make it part of people’s environment. Once farmers get an understanding that climate smart practices will not work against their profit margins but will actually supplement their profits and productivity, well see a better buy-in from farmers.'

However, the problems faced by African farmers, Langhoff said, is not just limited to methods of cultivation, but also structural issues such as infrastructure and land conversion. 'If you're a farmer in central Africa and you actually don't have a problem with producing a surplus, your problem is you can't sell it because by the time the surplus reaches the market after days on a boat or over land, it's rotten,' Langhof said.

'What farmers need most is skill sharing, learning about other methods which are working and real support in establishing infrastructure and a market so they can actually sell what they're producing.' Langhoff cited additional obstacles for farmers, including competition with large-scale industries, farmers being thrown off their land to make space for monocultures or cash crop production, and monopolised seed markets with one-size-fits all solutions.

In South Africa, Pettersson is planning to launch a new Department of Agriculture program to encourage small-scale farming. She hopes to get government institutions, such as schools, hospitals and prisons, to procure their food from local farms.

'In South Africa most people produce food they don’t eat and they eat the food they don’t produce,' Pettersson explained. 'So through small holder agriculture and through our Zero Hunger campaign, we are highlighting the connection between food security and small holder farming but were also saying that if we don’t look at CSA well be relegating them to subsistence for the rest of their lives.'

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