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Commentary – Climate-smart Agriculture: an opportunity to secure the future

Jun 17, 2014, 12:11 PM

Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of Weather Volatility and Climate Change, The Chicago Council’s 2014 flagship agriculture publication, points to two large and interrelated challenges.I term them a ‘double whammy’: the prospects of increasing food insecurity in the wake of climate change and consequent volatile weather. Let’s consider the first: growing food insecurity.

• In the next 25 years, we will have to produce more food than we did in the last 2,500 years.

• We need to grow more food with less land, water, and other critical inputs, since these are already limited and under increasing demographic and environmental pressures.

Let’s consider the second part: climate change makes matters worse for food security and nutrition. 

• Changes in climate threaten to reduce existing yields of crops like wheat and corn - critical for global food security. Food prices of these crops are projected to double, as a result.

• Increased levels of atmospheric carbon threaten to reduce the nutrition content of these crops, by reducing their protein levels or micronutrients such as zinc - compounding the challenge of not having enough food, with that of not having enough nutritious food.

In Africa, we see the very real effects of climate change on agriculture. Former thriving breadbaskets such as in Northern Nigeria are teetering due to years of underfunding and policy inattention. Outside corn, our food security depends on crops like sorghum, millets, cassava and sweet potato—termed ‘orphan crops’ due to lack of research attention relative to rice, wheat, and corn.

Food insecurity also threatens political stability. Nowhere is this clearer than in Africa. Increased food prices contribute to the increasing possibility of rioting and civil unrest, as was seen during recent food spikes in 2008 and 2011. While connecting these dots is complicated, the events in Senegal then, and the growing insecurity in Northern Nigeria today, clearly shows that jobless, unequal growth - which is largely a result of lack of performance in the ag sector - can have disastrous consequences for global security.

With a youth bulge far higher than that of the Middle East prior to the Arab Spring, Africa needs to generate jobs. Agriculture is the largest employment sector today. However, the millennials of Africa won’t go into agriculture if it’s a poverty trap, compounded by climate change.

Climate smart agriculture is an approach that can turn this double whammy into a double dividend, and - in Africa’s case - a triple dividend.

• First dividend: we can grow enough nutritious food for everyone. 

• Second dividend: we can do so more efficiently, resulting in overall reduction in green-house gas emissions, curbing climate change in the process.

We have a third dividend in Africa. The very real possibility of job creation in a thriving agriculture sector that is resilient and viewed as a business opportunity and not a poverty trap. Agriculture is the low-hanging fruit here, since it is the employer of first resort on the continent. 

So, what do I mean by climate smart agriculture?  It’s a combination of the various approaches The Chicago Council’s report puts under the rubrics of adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable intensification.

Climate smart agriculture uses new agriculture technologies that are climate resilient, and scales-up adoption of existing technologies. An example here would be using drought tolerant hybrid maize in Africa to help farming families cope with extreme weather events. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is already distributing these technologies at scale and today helps feed about 50 million people. 

Climate smart agriculture involves extension techniques such as zero tillage agriculture, which reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water run-off. 

Climate smart agriculture involves physical infrastructure and policy infrastructure: where rural roads are built to withstand hotter climates, where governments provide the right policy frameworks to advance climate resilience, help the private sector invest in the sector to make it a thriving business, like we have seen in GROW Africa partnerships.  

American leadership is critical for the success of climate smart agriculture.  This leadership is not so much about money. African governments and the private sector are increasingly able to also contribute significantly.

We need American leadership to help usher in the right policy frameworks to enable private investment. We need American leadership to help with technological transfer and capacity building to have sustainable agricultural solutions. We need American leadership to help generate effective trade policies that let African farmers gain their fair share of the global market.  

During the worst period of the AIDS crisis, Nelson Mandela issues us a challenge: “When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of global crisis or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?” 

America responded to this challenge by leading the world, and partnering with us in Africa - the ground zero of AIDS. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) saved lives - millions of Africans are alive today because of that bipartisan program. PEPFAR saved the future.

Today, as climate change threatens our food supply, America has the opportunity again to be judged to do the right thing by leading on climate smart agriculture through programs like Feed the Future.  Climate smart agriculture can secure that future.

Guest commentary - By Strive Masiyiwa, chairman, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA); co-chair, GROW Africa

“Climate change is happening, humans are causing it, and I think this is perhaps the most serious environmental issue facing us.”
Bill Nye