Dr Theo da Jager, SACAU President
Farmers are, in every sense, the main characters in the story of climate change. No one is more vulnerable than farmers to the effects of climate change. And no sector can do as much as agriculture, in as short a time, to address the causes, to mitigate the effects and to adapt to the change.
During the first week of negotiations at COP22 in Marrakech, there was raised excitement and new hope that agriculture would be allowed to take up its rightful place in the global climate debate. These hopes were crushed before the start of the second week.
The time has now come for farmers to plan a reduction of emissions in agriculture, to make the adaptations are relevant to a changing climate, and to present their proposals to the UNFCCC, and to COP 23 in Bonn in 2017.
Farmers as change architects
For far too long farmers have pleaded for the inclusion of agriculture in a global agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, and to allow for a SBSTA on agriculture. For far too long the farmers’ constituency has relied on parties and governments to come up with, and agree on, a climate change plan that fits agriculture.
After 22 years, nothing has happened. So, it’s time to put our heads, our experience and our expertise together, and design an agricultural plan by farmers for farmers, that allows us to take control of our own destiny.
This plan could be a real gamechanger if it were mandated by the world’s largest representative farmers’ organisations like the WFO, the Pan African Farmers’ Organisation (PAFO), the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and the Asian Farmers Association (AFA). It is the only logical vehicle for a broad-based solution, unless there is someone out there with the capacity to travel the world from farmgate to farmgate.
Let global organised agriculture secure the sustainability and profitability of the sector, and establish a reliable food supply in the face of rapidly changing climatic conditions, through a farmer-to-farmer planning session.
Here, we could tackle the most urgent questions about sectoral emissions, and engage on issues like strengthening the resilience and adaptability of farmers, from the giant industrial producers to the smallholder farmers in the world’s forgotten rural corners.
Farmers, more than anyone else, bear the brunt of climate change and very few farmers will question its existence, impact or urgency. Some may question agriculture’s role in mitigation and adaptation, but never before have primary producers worldwide convened for an open debate on climate change.
But this is not enough. We need action
Agriculture is, after the energy sector, the second biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions and responsible for 24% of all emissions.
Farmers cannot shy away from their responsibility and accountability with regards to emissions. And they don’t need to. Climate-smart agriculture does not have to be a burden to the sector; on the contrary, it can increase the profitability and sustainability of farming operations across the board from grass roots level to large swathes of corporate precision-farmed land.
High tech innovations, no-till cropping, nature friendly and awareness-driven agricultural practices all have the potential to produce more, on less, with less.
For farmers in Africa and Asia, climate-smart farming brings with it a whole new paradigm. For the poorest in our sector, those farming on less than a hectare, planting unimproved seed, using a hand hoe to cultivate, and driving annual expansion through deforestation, ‘climate-smart’ can mean mechanisation, modernisation and commercialisation.
Poverty is a major driver of climate change. If climate-smart agriculture does not offer a real and concrete prospect of slaying the dragon of poverty and hunger, it has no chance of winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the world’s farmers, for whom household food security is a daily issue.
There is no silver bullet for emissions in agriculture, and no one-size-fits-all solution that is sustainable. However, different targets for different places on the earth, pursued differently, could help reduce emissions, and encourage commitment to nature-friendly practices.
For the highly industrialised North it would mostly revolve around high tech innovation.
In the smallholder environment, the first fruits to be plucked could be a step as simple as stopping the fires that burn down more than half of the area of Central-, West- and East Africa every dry season. These fires put the worst kind of black carbon into the atmosphere and strip the soil of vital nutrients.
Since they make a living from the land, farmers are the primary custodians of nature’s resources in the modern world. But farmers do not make their living from nature.
On the contrary; they manipulate nature to earn a living from her. Nature has no surpluses, but surplus production is the very essence of commercial farming. Efficient farmers must eliminate competition, predators and diversity, and constrain the very elements through which nature restores balance to the system.
This is the complex, imperative tension between farming and nature. Because of this, farmers owe nature their best, and their most diligent efforts to ensure the continued health of the natural system. More than anyone, farmers realise and appreciate this.
Experts inform, farmers implement
It makes absolute sense then, that there is no multi-national institution, government, NGO or random interest group, that could dish up a plan on how to deal with climate change, and serve it to the global agricultural sector. Were any such groups to try this, it would probably not raise broad-based buy-in or committed execution by the farming fraternity.
No circle of experts, or exclusive group of influential farmers, can design a road map for climate wise agriculture either; the sector’s diversity would never allow for that. We need an intense workshop; informed by experts, populated by farmer leaders, to map out a strategy. A process of internalisation, in which farmers have the opportunity to contribute, question principles and endorse or reject the strategy, should follow.
Without going through this process, farmers will never take ownership or give that firm mandate, reach consensus and commit to change.
We need it, though it may be cumbersome and consume time and resources, because the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate.
There is no reassuring signal that the petty politics, which have kept agriculture out of its rightful place in the climate debates, and at COP agreements for the last 22 years, will disappear in the next 22 years.
In the long term, global food security is threatened. In the much shorter term, farmers’ livelihoods are. There is too much at stake to risk taking shortcuts or going for discounts.
And we can do it
I am calling for a comprehensive workshop of farmers’ leaders, world-wide, to develop a plan for agriculture; a plan as practical and sensible as only farmers can make it.
And I am calling for the global sector to change tack in its approach to the UNFCCC and COP.
A united sector, ready to engage COP with a tailor-made plan, mandated by the most representative farmer’s organisations on earth, would be difficult to refuse.
Of course, we can always wait and see what outcomes the current process generates. But, it has been said, that bad things happen because good people do nothing.
This article first appeared in the WFO newsletter for COP22