African anti-hunger drive could be blown off track by climate change

The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security in Kenya provides training, seeds and support on how to grow crops that are better suited for a changing climate. Climate change is the biggest threat to ending hunger in Africa, according to Sir Gordon Conway. Photo by: C. Schubert / CCAFS / CGIAR / CC BY-NC-SA

Sir Gordon Conway believes donors are committed to ending hunger in Africa. But the director of the advocacy group Agriculture for Impact worries that climate change could derail even the best-laid and well-funded plans.

“I think climate change is the biggest threat, particularly in Africa,” said the man recognized as one of the world’s leading scholars on agricultural development and currently professor of International Development at Imperial College London.

Conway discussed the agriculture-climate change dilemma during an exclusive interview with Devex in Paris, where he was a speaker at the “Closing the Gender Gap in Farming Under Climate Change” conference sponsored by a coalition of groups spearheaded by CGIAR, an international consortium of agricultural research organizations.

Regarding donor commitments, Conway is well-placed to know.

“Our job [at A4I], rather simply put, is to persuade European donors — which really means the British, the French, the Germans and the European Union — to do a better job of supporting agriculture in Africa,” he said.

Conway is satisfied that money is no longer an object, even in this time of cutbacks.

“In terms of agriculture, the financing for the next number of years is already there,” he explained. “The EU’s big program, which is for seven years, began last year. The Germans are launching a big program called One World No Hunger. I think there’s quite a bit of money there. It’s less about the money though, I think. It’s much more about how you focus it. How you work in partnerships — not only with other European donors but also with African governments themselves.”

3 tips for agricultural development leaders from Sir Gordon Conway

How can the top brass of the agricultural development community tackle global hunger more effectively? We asked Sir Gordon Conway, the top agricultural development scholar running Agriculture for Impact.

Even with the financing in place, the challenge remains huge. To feed the world by 2050, Conway estimates that 60-100 percent more food than what is currently available needs to be produced.

“We’ve got to do that on the same amount of land and with the same amount of water,” he said. “We’ve got to do it in a way that is prudent in the use of inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, in a way that promotes adaptation to climate change, and in a way that helps to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, builds natural capital, and builds up soil, water and natural resistance to pests. And in a way that’s gender sensitive. You’ve got to do all of that in the face of climate change.”

Climate change already affects the lives of African farmers, according to Conway.

“If you go to any village and ask if the climate is changing, they’ll say ‘yes,’” he said. “If you ask how, they’ll tell you how. If you ask what they are doing about it, they’ll tell you what they’re doing about it. It doesn’t matter where you are in Africa, you can see the climate changing.”

But things could get worse. An increase of 4 degrees, “which is highly probable,” would raise temperatures in northern and southern Africa by 6 degrees.

“That’s huge,” Conway stressed, “and definitely devastating. Not just in terms of the local agriculture, but in terms of how actors are affected by extreme climatic events.”

To begin to address this problem, agriculture must urgently be placed at the core of the climate change negotiations, starting with the COP21 conference in Paris at the end of this year, Conway argued. So far, it has been on the outside looking in, he complained.

“It is important to make absolutely sure that agriculture figures in the final negotiations in Paris on climate change,” he said. “We have to keep stressing that agriculture is a key sector, which has big challenges in terms of both adaptation and mitigation. Climate-smart agriculture is what we’re all working on. And it has to be really upfront in the climate change negotiations.”

To get there, advocates of agricultural development could team up with other groups that feel marginalized by the U.N. process — working with people like former Irish President Mary Robinson, who is concerned with, among other things, gender issues.

“I think one way of coming together is what Mary Robinson has been talking about — climate justice,” he said. “She’s a great articulator of the concept of climate justice. I think that might be one way we can work more closely together.”

What are your thoughts on putting agriculture at the core of climate change negotiations? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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    Bill Hinchberger

    Bill Hinchberger is a global communications professional and educator. He studied at Berkeley and has taught at the Sorbonne. Based mostly in Paris, he spends quality time in Brazil and the United States, and works extensively in Africa and Latin America. He has served as an international correspondent for The Financial Times, Business Week, ARTnews, Variety, and others. One current focus of his work is content creation for foundations, NGOs and other organizations, especially those working on issues related to international affairs, the environment and development. He also runs training programs for professional journalists, notably in Africa, and is an associate of Rain Barrel Communications, a leading consultancy for social justice projects.