Imagine that you live in a village in Africa, say Niger. Your family has been farming the same plot for generations. It’s never been easy. But recently it seems to have become even more difficult. The weather seems more variable, the rainfall less predictable, yields more uncertain, prices more volatile.
Now imagine one, two, three or five decades from now. How goes farming in your village?
It could be much worse─more droughts, worse floods, lower yields, lower incomes. Quite possibly the village hasn’t been able to survive.
Or it could be much better. Stronger soils, better yields, more predictable harvests, more varied and nutritious crops, and cash flows each year to the farmer for sequestering more carbon on his land.
Which of these happens is a choice.
It depends on our decisions on two things: whether the world as a whole decides to lower carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2050. And what we all do to support that farmer and the system of farming around the world.
As I write this there are 1000 people from 100 countries spending a week in The Hague in the Netherlands discussing this second issue. The Dutch Government and the World Bank have organized a conference─called “Down2Earth”─just four weeks prior to Cancun in order to give momentum to a subject that has been often neglected in the climate debate. Farmers are under the greatest threat from climate change, but they could also play a major role in addressing it. Agriculture accounts for nearly 15% of global carbon emissions, with deforestation and forest degradation accounting for as much again.
It turns out that it is quite possible for agriculture to actually sequester─or absorb─carbon into the soil rather than emitting it. But surely this would require a trade-off with productivity and yields? Surprisingly not.
But wait, it gets better. Would it be possible to have higher yields, more carbon in the soil and greater resilience to droughts and heat? Amazingly, yes again!
This is the territory of that golden triple win: interventions that would increase yields (poverty reduction and food security), make yields more resilient in the face of extremes (adaptation), and make the farm a solution to the climate change problem rather than part of the problem (mitigation).
This is not easy, and don’t believe anybody who says it is. There is a great deal we don’t yet understand, and such triple wins are likely to require a package of interventions and be country- and locality specific in their application. But a good number of countries are now showing that it can be done. China has been a leader in this, with programs such as the Loess Plateau now internationally famous. Brazil has also invested in good quality research and extension and is demonstrating these triple results. And small-holder farmers in Kenya are already receiving cash payments on a pilot basis for new farming techniques that will hold more carbon in the soil, even while increasing soil fertility.
Participants will be looking at detail at these and many other pilots and preparing an Action Plan to be discussed at the High Level part of the conference later this week when more than 60 ministers will be present.
Commendations go to Juergen Voegele and his imaginative team in the World Bank’s Agriculture department, including point-persons Marjory-Anne Bromhead and Patrick Verkooijen of the World Bank, for pushing forward these important frontiers. I had the pleasure of addressing the opening session of the Conference, and learned so much that I’m going back again for the ministerial session on Thursday!