Now is the time to harmonise food and climate policies for Africa to end hunger and strengthen food system resilience

Rice harvest in Mozambique. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Barbee/Thomson Reuters Foundation (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This blog was first published by CLIMATE & ENVIRONMENT AT IMPERIAL on 4 November 2021

Meera Shah, Research Associate at Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy and a member of the Malabo Montpellier Panel’s secretariat says transforming Africa’s food systems in line with climate action is an opportunity to accelerate progress towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

Across Africa, food security is in jeopardy as rainfall fluctuates and temperatures change. Madagascar is on the brink of the world’s first “climate change famine” caused by the worst drought in 40 years, over 2 million Kenyans are facing severe food crisis due to a drought, and flooding in Sudan and South Sudan have affected over 700,000 people.

Our food and climate systems are inherently interlinked. On one hand, extreme weather events and climate shocks severely disrupt entire food systems, reducing their resilience and undermining progress on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to reduce hunger and malnutrition. On the other, unsustainable agriculture and livestock practices, such as water and fertiliser misuse, deforestation, overgrazing, and land degradation, contribute to nearly a third of the global greenhouse gas emissions, in turn causing climate change and leading to more extreme weather.

Unsustainable food systems and climate change can no longer be tackled separately. A food systems transformation can support global climate action by reducing greenhouse gas emissions which would ultimately help to ensure that food systems remain resilient and produce sufficient food for our growing populations.

While some efforts are in place to align policies across food systems and climate action, much remains to be done – the first ever food systems summit took place in September 2021 and it reinforced the need for contextual and localised solutions. Smart synchronisation of frameworks, policies and programmes will ensure that resources are directed efficiently, and that outcomes are positive for the food system, environment and social impacts.

Putting food and agriculture on the climate agenda

The UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) has already fired the starting gun. At the end of the first UNFSS in September 2021, Secretary-General António Guterres emphasised the importance of aligning food system transformation pathways with climate commitments. In fact, the importance of climate action was represented across three of the Summit’s five Action Tracks:

  • Action Track #3: Boost nature-positive production
  • Action Track #4: Advance equitable livelihoods
  • Action Track #5: Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress

Yet, COP26 has failed to integrate food and agriculture within its agenda.

While it may be too late for African policymakers to influence the agenda at COP26, the continent will host COP27 in 2022 (mostly likely in Egypt), when food and agriculture must be placed at the front and centre of the agenda. COP27 will be an opportune moment to initiate a systematic integration of the UNFSS and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) processes so that they can begin to feed off each other.

In the meantime, policymakers can align policy interventions at home – both through the continent-wide framework for agriculture-led growth, Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), signed in 2003, and 2013 Malabo Declaration frameworks, agreements that reaffirmed the core principles of CAADP and provided additional goals and targets to strengthen the programme.

Women farming seaweed in Zanzibar.
Seaweed farming in Zanzibar – the impact of rising temperatures of the Indian Ocean is threatening local species, like the seaweed, and those who’s livelihood depends on it. Photo credit: Natalija Gormalova / Climate Visuals Countdown

Integrating climate and food systems’ resilience in Africa

Few places on earth demonstrate the links between climate and food more clearly than the African continent. According to the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, Africa, relative to global averages, is experiencing the impact of climate change at a faster rate. Between 1960 and 2015, average temperatures rose by 0.65-1.03°C and precipitation patterns have shifted discernibly, with extreme drought and flood events becoming more frequent and intense.

While Africa’s contribution to cumulative historical global emissions is minimal, a worrying trend is developing. Globally, emissions from agriculture have remained somewhat constant between 1990-2019, but Africa is the only continent where emissions from agriculture rose during this period, seeing a 30% growth in emissions.

A stable climate is the bedrock for Africa’s food systems. In many countries across the continent, rainfall is highly variable or insufficient. Yet over 90% of food production continues to be almost exclusively rain-fed, and irrigation and machinery uptake remains low. The challenge for Africa’s policymakers is to support food systems stakeholders as they adapt to a changing climate while empowering them to keep greenhouse gas emissions low.

Several African countries have submitted revised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) which outline their ambitions to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Within these, they have included commitments by sector, such as for agriculture and livestock. While most of these NDCs focus on adaptation for their agriculture sector, some also include specific commitments to reduce emissions through, for example, improved livestock and rice production, and store carbon in soils. Few updated NDCs by African countries address emissions elsewhere, even though improved food processing, healthier diets, and reductions in food waste and loss can dramatically shrink emissions.

The performance of countries’ food systems and agriculture sectors are evaluated against commitments outlined in the Malabo Declaration – a commitment agreed in 2014 by all African Union heads of state and government. Among other indicators, the Malabo Declaration obliges countries to strengthen the resilience of their livelihoods and production systems through three key goals:

  • Ensure that by 2025 at last 30% of farm, pastoral and fisher households are resilient to climate change and weather-related risks.
  • Enhance investments for resilience building initiatives, including social security for rural workers and other vulnerable social groups, as well as for vulnerable ecosystems.
  • Mainstream resilience and risk management into policies, strategies and investment plans.

These goals are broad enough to allow countries to define their own pathways based on their unique national circumstances. Yet, there is clearly room to refine reporting requirements on the Malabo Declaration’s evaluation of the resilience of Africa’s food systems. Additional and specific indicators on adaptation and mitigation, as well as disaggregated data across different types of production systems and value chain stages, will support a more systematic integration of climate targets into CAADP processes. Additionally, including emissions from food processing, diets and food waste and loss would strengthen the NDCs. Doing so would enable countries to capture complementary data and better measure and reflect food systems’ interconnectedness with the environment, biodiversity and climate.

Financing food systems transformation and climate action

Africa’s agriculture sectors are also required to produce National Agriculture Investment Plans (NAIPs) defining clear investment frameworks for their agricultural sector. By coordinating commitments made through the NDCs with the funding plans embodied within the NAIPs, governments could ensure that their food and climate transformations are appropriately funded.

As Africa’s policymakers consider the horizons beyond UNFSS and COP26, they must pursue opportunities to harmonise the continent’s policies addressing two of the largest challenges facing the continent: hunger and climate change. Egypt’s likely hosting of COP27, the impending renewal of the Malabo Declaration by African heads of state and government and the implementation of UNFSS commitments all provide avenues to mainstream food systems and climate related targets. Doing so will ensure that action on both challenges reinforce and amplify action for the people of Africa.

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