Why African groups want agroecology at centre of COP27 climate adaptation talks

Million Belay

Dr Million Belay, the General Coordinator of Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) while opening a conference to push agroecology to the centre of COP27 talks at Skylight Hotel Hotel in Addis Ababa on September 19, 2022.

Photo credit: Pool

As the annual world climate conference set to be held next month in Egypt draws closer, civil society groups, scientists, environmentalists, academics and consumers from across Africa are building momentum for agroecology to be placed at the centre of adaptation talks.

The 27 th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – known simply as COP 27 – will take place in November at Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

African groups believe that with more than 200 million people undernourished every year in Africa and given the harmful effects of industrial agriculture coupled with slow progress towards food security attributed to climate change, there is a need to change course and adopt a more sus-tainable farming system.

Participants at a three-day conference organised by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) in partnership with the Consortium for Climate Change Ethiopia and the Environment Protection Authority last month said agroecology was Africa’s surest path to food sovereignty and an essential climate adaptation and mitigation measure.

“We demand that COP27 put agroecology at the centre of Africa’s climate adaptation, creating resilience for Africa’s small-scale farmers, fishers, pastoralists, indigenous communities and their food systems,” reads the communique released 26th September.

The convening, which ran from 19th to 21st September 2022, and attracted attendees from 35 African countries, was called to discuss Africa’s roadmap to adaptation through agroecology and issue a call to action towards COP27 and beyond.

With fertilizer prices high and hunger rising to alarming levels, some civil society leaders had made a similar plea to business, donor, and government leaders two weeks earlier at the African Green Revolution Forum in Kigali, Rwanda.

Their call for an end to the “failing Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa” was rebuffed, with donors offering a new strategy that promised more of the same input-intensive agriculture and a “rebranding” that removes the words “green revolution” from the organization’s and its annual forum’s names.

Engage small-scale producers

Specifically, the groups in their Addis Ababa conference called for the inclusion of agroecology in the UNFCCC climate negotiations, arguing it will transform the agri-food system, build resilience, and enable small-scale farmers, pastoralists, and fishers to adapt to climate change.

“Reject false solutions that threaten land and seeds and increase reliance on global agrochemical corporations,” the communique reads. Instead, they want meaningful engagement with small- scale food producers and indigenous communities, including women and youth, in the COP27 negotiations and beyond because they manage landscapes across Africa.

The groups want climate change financing to be focused on sustainable food systems, saying that time is ripe for a deliberate increase in funding for small-scale farmers, fishers, pastoralists, and indigenous communities.

The communique notes that the effects of the climate emergency, characterized by rising temperatures, floods, storms, droughts, and depleted lands, impact small-scale food producers across Africa who are forced to adapt to sustain livelihoods and feed families yet are met with negligible support or access to climate finance.

“African agriculture is plagued by underinvestment and policy gaps that prevent access to productive capital and land. We need a radical and just transition away from industrial agriculture, corporate monopolies, and false climate solutions - toward food sovereignty and agroecology,” the groups said.

AFSA, the largest civil society movement in Africa representing 200 million small-scale farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, religious groups and indigenous peoples, terms the current climate change situation an emergency that needs a sustainable solution.

“Farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples and local communities use agroecology to steward their land sustainably, produce nourishing food that celebrates cultural heritage, and strengthen local markets and economies,” the statement notes.

It adds that by embedding diversity and resilience, agroecology provides the ability to absorb carbon and adapt to the existential threat of climate change, something the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) already acknowledges.

The convening followed findings of the sixth IPCC assessment report of the Working Group II which confirms AFSA’s long-established position that agroecological principles and practices, ecosystem-based management in fisheries and aquaculture, and other approaches that work with nature support food security, nutrition, health and well-being, livelihoods, and biodiversity.

Agroecology also supports ecosystem services such as pest control, pollination, cushion from temperature extremes, as well as carbon sequestration and storage.

Shun false solutions

Speakers at the conference reiterated calls for solutions that work with nature rather than against it, warning that some “so-called adaptation measures” such as genetic engineering and carbon trade were “false solutions” that deepen the climate crisis.

Arguing against ‘false solutions” that threaten access to land and increase vulnerability, speakers at the conference insisted on “real solutions” that can cool Africa and absorb carbon sustainably through conservation, restoration, and improved land management.

“Mitigation is being done but there is no huge action happening. You pay poor countries to keep their forest so that you can keep producing oil. This is not going to work,” warned Nnimmo Bas-sey, the Nigerian environmental activist.

Peter Gubbels of Groundswell International warned of a deliberate strategy to reframe industrial agriculture and big tech as climate change heroes “rather than the climate change villains that they actually are.”

“Small-scale farmers will be pushed off the land for large-scale farming. They will increasingly be replaced by robots, data, machines and gene-edited seeds, all for the profits of big agriculture and big tech corporations,” he said.

He said that agricultural drones, vertical farming procedures, high precision machines, satellite data and techniques aimed at reducing resource consumption were a ploy to continue industrial agriculture and the use of fossil fuels.

“This will distract and delay real climate action and push investment in the wrong direction,” he said.

Speakers called for support for resilient agriculture that works with nature, builds crop and diet diversity, respects climatic patterns, and empowers marginalised farmers.

They spoke against synthetic fertilizer – derived from fossil fuels – which generates nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. Input-intensive farming also hurts carbon sequestration by depleting plants’ ability to store carbon in the soil. The manufacture of inorganic fertilizer and its transport across the world also leaves huge fossil fuel footprints in its wake.

The degrading of healthy organic soil by chemical fertilizers and pesticides increases the soil’s vulnerability to drought, reducing its capacity to capture water and keep it available for crops.

“A further devastating effect of the over-fertilization typical of current chemical farming practices is the nutritional overload in our waterways, caused by runoff of agricultural nitrates and phosphates, leading to oxygen depletion in rivers and so-called ‘dead zones’ in the oceans, no longer inhabitable by most aquatic life,” said Mr Hakim Baliraine, the chair of Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers Forum (ESAFF), a network of grassroots small-scale farmers’ organizations in 15 countries.

AFSA General Coordinator Million Belay said the false narrative that Africa needs to plant hybrid seeds, use agrochemicals, and put land in the hands of those who can produce more was disastrous for the continent.

“The exhortation to pump soils with chemicals in order to grow more food pollutes the soil, makes farmers dependent on external inputs and exacerbates climate change,” said Dr Belay.

What agroecology does

He said agroecology, on the other hand, was Africa’s best solution for climate change adaptation as it cares for Mother Earth and restores biodiversity while ensuring healthy, nutritious, and resilient food systems.

A key principle of agroecology is the diversification of farming systems where mixtures of crop varieties are grown through intercropping and agroforestry. Livestock is also integrated into farms to support the ecosystems above the ground and in the soil.

“All these practices are labour-intensive and community-oriented, reducing poverty and social exclusion. In other words, agroecology can raise agricultural productivity in ways that are economically viable, environmentally benign, and socially uplifting,” said Mr Baliraine.

Stressing the role of agroecology in climate change adaptation, Dr Susan Chomba, the director of Vital Landscapes for Africa at the World Resources Institute (WRI), said Africa offers the “latecomer advantage,” the ability to transform its food systems without damage to nature by the excessive use of synthetic fertilizer and other inputs.

She noted that there is abundant evidence that agroforestry, for instance, is increasing food production and farmer incomes through tree harvesting.

“What is now needed is to build an evidence base showing where and how agroecology is working across the continent, support agriculture and food policies to shift to agroecology, and build a portfolio of public and private sector finance mechanisms and philanthropies to scale suitable agroecological practices in various contexts.”

AFSA seeks to integrate agroecology in the climate policy spaces by engaging the African Group of Negotiators and working with youth and women to build resilience.

It does this by enhancing the capacity of a network of healthy soil centres across the continent to drive the regeneration of soils. To push its case, AFSA is assembling an evidence base of the effectiveness of agroecological soil regeneration and organic fertilizers.

AFSA programme coordinator Bridget Mugambe says the climate emergency had affected women the most and warned this would get worse with the current trend of some African countries piling pressure on small-scale farmers to go for industrial agriculture initiatives such as GMO seeds and fossil-fuel inputs.

“Clearly the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is not going to be achieved by more industrialization. AFSA is driving the African transition to agroecology – the antithesis of industrial farming,” said Ms Mugambe.

She is optimistic that African countries are increasingly warming up to agroecology which she says would restore African food diversity.

A key criticism against agroecology is that it cannot feed the world. Proponents, however, say this is a wrong-headed question because it assumes that to feed the world one needs large-scale monoculture of grain which is then shipped across the globe to feed the hungry.

“Agroecology feeds the world’s growing population, one community at a time. More diverse farms grow the foods best suited to their areas and communities, rather than the most grain for the global market,” says Anne Maina, the national coordinator of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya (BIBA Kenya).