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A choice between feeding or saving the planet?

Elwyn Grainger-Jones's picture

News from the Sahel region of Africa is not good – failed rains leading to famine. Worst affected is Niger, where half of that nation’s 15 million people now face severe food shortages after several years of drought. Climate change will only increase the frequency of such events.

 

For most people living in this area, agriculture is their main source of income. The International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD) believes that good agricultural and rural development programs can both help to feed a growing population and conserve the planet we live on. For example, last week one of my team met Baraka. Her family farms a small patch of land in the Maradi region of Niger, where we are helping her and the others in the village introduce zero-till agriculture and regenerate degraded ecosystems to increase food production. Farming in a sustainable way also strengthens their capacity to deal with climate change.

 

It was images of villages like this that were in my mind when earlier this month, I was invited to the World Bank in Washington to discuss the links among climate, environment and agriculture. We―bank staff and representatives of the NGO development and research communities―asked ourselves one simple question: Are we linking these issues together or do we still see them in separate boxes?

 

These are some of the main messages in my presentation which may be relevant in designing policies that help better deal with situations like the one in the Sahel today:

 

First, the lack of integration of agendas is proving to be costly in developing countries. Agriculture is both the victim and the villainit suffers from, and often contributes to, environmental degradation and climate change. Food security impacts will become more acute in the face of climate change, population growth and changes in dietary habits. Climate change is multiplying existing risks to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and to development (e.g. drought), is creating new ones (e.g. sea level rise), anddepending on the global response—may create some new opportunities as well (e.g. expanded carbon markets). As the world seeks all available ways to reduce emissions, the costs of ignoring the contribution of agriculture become clearer―it has only recently been included in climate change negotiations despite accounting for 14 percent of emissions and being the major driver of deforestation (another 18 percent). IFAD has been working with others to help countries put agriculture more clearly on the climate agenda. The outcome of climate negotiations will be incredibly important to smallholders in terms of climate impacts, whether they will benefit from credible financial mechanisms for mitigation, and whether additional and innovative climate financing will reach them.

 

Second, there has been a lot of good progress in integrating climate and environment with agriculture – but we still have a long way to go. Baraka’s family sees the complicated reality on the ground― it is a complex array of connections between the natural environment and their livelihoods. It is important that agriculture ministries, climate negotiators, and the development community support programs and policies that recognize this. IFAD’s new Climate Change Strategy is all about deepening this integration: how we frame our overall mission of rural poverty reduction, develop country strategies with our partners, and develop projects and support new policies. 

 

Third, we need a clearer message of opportunity on sustainable agriculture.  Recent best-practice approaches to agriculture have seen some success in protecting ecosystems, increasing yields, and reducing poverty. Yet these policies are often described in terms of trade-offs, with a stark choice between feeding the planet or environmental sustainability. This is a false choice in the long-run, and sometimes even in the short run.

 

What we are seeing in IFAD is a rising level of interest in climate change and its wider environmental impacts among our developing country partners. We need to respond with a positive message: agriculture can increase yields and simultaneously do environmental good, and this can happen at scale.

 

 Presentation from the meeting at the World Bank