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CLIMATE CHANGE: Turning Agriculture From Problem to Solution

Mantoe Phakathi * - IPS/TerraViva

CANCÚN, Mexico, Dec 5 2010 (IPS) - Global agriculture contributes in the region of 17 percent to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, but according to the World Bank, climate smart agriculture techniques can both reduce emissions and meet the challenge of producing enough food for a growing world population.

Farmers have a role to play in reducing emissions. Credit:  Kristin Palitza/IPS

Farmers have a role to play in reducing emissions. Credit: Kristin Palitza/IPS

“As much as agriculture is part of the problem, it is also part of the solution,” said Inger Anderson, the World Bank’s vice president on sustainable development.

Anderson was speaking to agriculture, food security and climate change experts at Agriculture and Rural Development Day, a side event at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico on Dec. 4.


Agriculture experts are punting a scenario in which farming delivers a “triple win”, sequestering carbon in soil and biomass, gaining greater resilience to drought and higher temperatures, and improve food security and farmers’ incomes.

Achieving this miracle will require varying interventions in different areas, but examples can already be found.

On China’s Loess Plateau, thousands of years of agriculture and grazing turned forests into a dry zone. The loss of trees left a fine yellow soil vulnerable to erosion; the erosion filled the rivers with silt and created damaging annual flooding.

Sixteen years ago, the Chinese government and the World Bank set out to change land use practices in the area. The project enlisted the local population to construct silt dams and terracing and planting fruit trees and grass on slopes to steep for other crops. Locals were paid for their labour on the rehabilitation projects, but more importantly were granted cheap long-term leases on land which is rapidly recovering its ecological and agricultural viability.

On the much-smaller Humbo Plateau in Ethiopia, smallholders have succeeded in regenerating forest and restoring productivity. Farmers there have adopted new rules for sustainable use of wooded areas – helped by energy-efficient stoves that reduce the demand for fuel wood and charcoal. Alongside nurturing the regrowth of badly degraded woodland, training has allowed locals to diversify into raising livestock and poultry as well as non-farm activities.

The Humbo project is one of the few African Clean Development Mechanism projects, receiving its first $34,000 cheque for carbon stored in its 2,700 hectares of forest in October 2010.

Farmers in Malawi, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Niger and Zambia are also involved in agro-forestry, integrating trees into food crop and livestock systems.

“In this way, a green cover on the land is sustained throughout the year,” said Anderson. “These systems bolster nutrient supply through nitrogen fixation and water conservation, and they increase the direct production of food, fodder, fuel, fibre and income from products under these trees.”

Farmers in Malawi, have more than doubled their maize harvests when growing their crops under a canopy of trees. Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, the chief executive officer of Food Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, said African countries need to work out strategies that will take into consideration the livelihoods of rural communities.

Adapting African agriculture

“The challenge is that in Africa, we thought only of science and technology as a way of adaptation to climate change,” said Sibanda.

“We started talking about adaption in Africa before we could even do research on the opportunities that come with community livelihoods.”

Diana Liverman, a researcher from the University of Arizona, said smallholder farmer have long relied on indigenous knowledge to adapt to conditions, but escalating climate change may exceed their capacities.

“To use indigenous knowledge at this point, when the climate has drastically changed, could be a challenge because it might not be able to cope with the present realities of the phenomenon,” said Liverman.

Instead, she said, modern science should help advance indigenous knowledge to help farmers adapt. But she stressed that farmers should be at the heart of deciding which course to take.

“Researchers should refrain from making choices for African farmers,” said Liverman. “Some will want the modern technologies while others would like to continue with the traditional ones. What needs to happen is that adaptation funds should be availed to all.”

Scientists, researchers and policy makers should hasten their pace in finding adaptation measures, said Sibanda, because unless action is taken now, the impacts of climate change could derail sub-Saharan Africa’s revitalised efforts to transform the agricultural sector.

“This could deflate the optimism this has created in achieving a uniquely African ‘Green and Rainbow’ Revolution,” said Sibanda.

The continent is pushing forward with the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) which focuses on four key areas: land and water management, market access, food supply and hunger and agriculture research.

Dr Josué Dioné, the director of food security and sustainable development division of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, noted that CAADP will strenghen the agriculture sector in Africa and improve food security, but he warned though that countries should come up with climate-proof programmes to secure gains.

“Climate change in Africa is both a challenge and opportunity,” said Dioné. “By using the best practices to counter the impact of climate change, we could stop importing food for our people.”

*Terna Gyuse in Cape Town contributed to this report.

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