Reasons to be optimistic about agriculture after COP23

By Katie Ward and Meera Shah

It is widely agreed that agriculture is both a victim and a culprit of climate change. Agriculture is a leading contributor to climate change. The sector emits one quarter of global greenhouse gases, second only to the energy sector. Producing, processing and transporting food is extremely carbon intensive.

This is typically a bigger problem in highly developed economies such as Europe and North America and newly industrialising countries like China and India. But, developing economies will be challenged to find ways to industrialise without using fuels that damage the environment.

Greenhouse gas emissions released through smallholder farming are minimal. People working in the agriculture sector in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are largely victims of climate change. Higher temperatures, unreliable rainfall and weather extremes will dramatically impact food production in these areas. Yields in 2050 are predicted to be 22 percent lower in sub-Saharan Africa and 8 percent lower in South Asia.

Climate change won’t just impact yields but also the nutritious quality of food. Scientists have shown that crops grown in higher concentrations of carbon dioxide will contain less iron, zinc and proteins. And, malnutrition is likely to worsen as extreme weather events increase. In Ethiopia and Kenya, two of the world’s most drought-prone countries, children aged five years or younger who were born during a drought were found to be 36 to 50 percent more likely to be malnourished than children not born during a drought.

The negations this week at COP23 help countries to understand both how they can mitigate the causes of climate change through addressing greenhouse gasses and how they can best adapt to the changing climate. It is critical that the millions of smallholder farmers across Africa are supported to adapt and also to play their part in reducing emissions.

And here, there is reason for optimism. As part of the Paris Agreement countries have to submit National Determined Contributions (NDCs) – which are their plans to reach the two-degree target and adapt to the changing climate. So far, 127 countries out of the 138 have included agriculture within their national priorities for adaptation and 119 countries have included agricultural mitigation.

Solar irrigation

At COP23, a series of side events - organised by donors, NGOs and corporate partners - themed ‘Agriculture Advantage’, sought to set the agenda for the need to transform agricultural development in the face of climate change. The objective of the event was to strengthen the case for investing in climate solutions and to scale up successful programmes. Solutions they highlight include: better supporting women farmers; helping farmers sustainably manage land and water resources; financing climate change mitigation in agriculture; harnessing genetic resources; and aligning policies for climate-smart agriculture

Climate-smart agriculture refers to agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, helps farmers to adapt to climate change and reduces agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Techniques in Burkina Faso have involved careful planting, water conservation and enriching the soil but climate-smart agricultural practices are different all over Africa, as the context demands.

Examples and innovations in climate-smart agriculture often have multiple benefits. For example: agroforestry helps to diversify the produce of farms, improves soil quality and enhances resilience; solar irrigation enables smallholder farmers to increase their yields without contributing to emissions; and stress tolerant seed varieties counter climate change, are more nutritious and are often more pest and disease resistant.

The bottom line is that countries need to produce more food with less resources in order to be food secure, and many are already doing so. They provide useful insights for others to learn from. It is imperative to build on the momentum gained at COP 23 and to support smallholder farmers to adopt agricultural practices that will help reduce hunger.

Watch this video to learn more about how communities in Burkina Faso are already collaborating to respond to a changing climate.

The opinions represented in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of individual Malabo Montpellier Panel members and their organisations.