Why support Africa’s small farmers?

Kofi Boa

What you need to know:

  • Africa’s farmers relied on the world leaders’ meeting at COP26 to take steps that might mitigate some of the worst effects of the climate crisis.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) last November, world leaders pledged billions of dollars to sustainable farming and agricultural research. This commitment comes at a critical time. 

The stakes are especially high for Africa’s small farmers, who work their fields by hand and are at the mercy of the elements. The predictable weather patterns these farmers depended on in the past have disappeared. This year, late rains in Ghana and neighbouring West African countries delayed planting. Then, unusually heavy rainfall at the end of the growing season hampered the harvest. In East Africa, swarms of locusts, fostered by hotter, wetter conditions, devoured a vast expanse of crops. 

Africa’s farmers relied on the world leaders’ meeting at COP26 to take steps that might mitigate some of the worst effects of the climate crisis. While the commitments made in Glasgow set the stage for meaningful action, pledges to reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions likely fell short of what is needed to limit global warming to 1.5° Celsius, relative to pre-industrial levels. 

With climate volatility set to continue, small farmers need support to adapt to the changes they are already experiencing. While most headlines about COP26 focused on emissions reductions, other commitments made in Glasgow provide hope for the future of global agriculture – if leaders follow through on their promises. 

For example, the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate aims to provide meaningful support for climate-adaptive farming, agricultural research, and food-systems innovations. The AIM4C initiative, led by the United States and the United Arab Emirates, has received pledges of at least $4 billion so far and seeks to double these commitments in the next year. AIM4C includes research projects by both government and non-government partners that explore everything from how gene-bank collections could unlock new climate-resilient crops to methods for reducing methane emissions from livestock. 

Taken together, these commitments should help small farmers prepare for greater risks. Equally important, they should encourage industrialised agricultural systems to become more sustainable. Africa’s small farmers share none of the blame for the fact that, in the push to increase food production, agriculture has become a large emitter of GHGs. At the same time, the climate change that industrial agriculture is fuelling affects food production around the world. It lowers yields, weakens crop nutrients, disrupts the geography of farming, and threatens rural livelihoods. Ultimately, food supplies everywhere are at risk. 

Unfortunately, it is far from certain that global leaders will fulfil their commitments to the future of Africa’s farmers – even though their fate will affect our food systems more broadly. The world’s richest countries have fallen behind on their promise from COP15 in 2009 to provide $100 billion annually for climate-change adaptation and mitigation in the world’s poorest countries. 

Programmes that help Africa’s small farmers become more resilient in the face of climate change are doing invaluable work. But these programmes reach only a small percentage of the population. Millions living in rural Africa still experience an annual “hunger season” – a period of profound deprivation between harvests. 

As Africa’s farmers work to adapt to climate change, global leaders must do their part by keeping – and extending – the promises they made at COP26. Increased investment in sustainable agriculture is critical to eliminating the continent’s hunger season.

-- Project Syndicate

Kofi Boa, a farmer, is Founder and Director of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation Centre for No-Till Agriculture, Ghana. Roger Thurow, a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


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