What place for agricultural innovation at COP21?

By Elena L. Pasquini 01 December 2015

Maherunness and her husband grow chillies at their climate-smart house in Satkhira, Bangladesh. Has the impact of climate change on agriculture been addressed sufficiently in the process that led to COP21? Photo by: M. Yousuf Tushar / WorldFish / CC BY-NC-ND

Those who feed the world are already carrying the burden of climate change. Drought, floods and extreme weather events are adversely affecting smallholder farmers on every continent, causing hunger, poverty, death, and putting future food security in jeopardy.

The Paris climate conference’s agenda is packed with events and meetings to stress the urgency of measures to build resilience and foster adaptation measures.

But as negotiations begin in earnest, how much attention and resources are the international community really willing to devote to the agricultural sector? Only at the end of the two-week summit will farmers and agricultural implementers know whether the talks will translate into concrete commitments, robust funding and concerted actions.

Has the impact of climate change on agriculture been addressed sufficiently in the process that led to Paris?

“Broadly, the answer is no,” Josh Lozman, deputy director of global policy and advocacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told Devex. “But it’s getting better and that is providing us with a sense of optimism.”  

According to Lozman, “for good reasons” past United Nations climate change summits focused more on mitigation and energy issues.

“When we look at the impact of climate in a midrange spectrum, undoubtedly the biggest impacts will be on agricultural production in the coming years, Lozman said. “It’s critical that we increase the focus on adaptation,” adding that only about 16 percent of climate finance currently goes to adaptation and resilience measures.

Investing in game changers

Agnes Kalibata, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, told Devex she expects from the Paris summit a recognition that smallholder farmers are going to be most affected by climate change and that they therefore require investments.

The Gates Foundation, meanwhile, would like to see the Green Climate Fund — established in 2010 with a focus on climate-compatible cities, low-emission and climate-resilient agriculture, forests, and small island developing states — paying equal attention to adaptation and mitigation, prioritizing investments in agriculture and overall setting some ambitious goals. Lowering carbon emissions is one such goal, Lozman said, but since climate change is already affecting the sector “we have to start working now to mitigate those impacts.”

“We’d like to see funding go to some of those big challenges in agriculture that can help us to prevent the decrease of productivity,” Lozman said.

The risk for the GCF is that, with so many potential areas for investment, resources are channeled into small projects that lack game-changing impact. So where should the investment focus lie?

“Smallholder farmers in African agriculture need simple things … investing in technologies that increase their yields,” said Kalibata. “Better yielding varieties that will help them cope with climate change; soils that hold water for longer; varieties that don’t need as much water; and better information about climate change.”

Lozman also urged a need for technologies such as mobile devices that can access market or weather information and more data to allow for more informed decision-making. He also called for more research and development within the seed sector: The Gates Foundation has estimated that roughly $1.3 billion per year in increased investment could increase genetic gains — the increased performance achieved through artificial genetic improvement programs — by 1.5-2 percent per year from its current 0.5-1 percent per year.

“The timeline to do this research is about 10 years,” Lozman said. “We need to start now.”

Encouraging farmers to adopt new technologies, use better seeds and fertilizers are a crucial area for GCF investment. But they are not without controversy, with small farmers criticizing the use of corporate seed over farmer-managed seed systems, dubbing it a threat to food sovereignty. But according to Kalibata, there’s no contradiction, since food sovereignty means that farmers can produce enough food. Her organization AGRA, she said, would continue to encourage local seed systems and working with African farmers to identify varieties that are more resistant to drought currently available in the public domain.

According to Lozman, investments in agriculture should be “climate-smart.” But this term has caused some dissent among the ranks. In September, some 350 organizations, including ActionAid, FIAN and Via Campesina, released a statement urging the GCF board “not to accredit any program of work that is based on climate-smart agriculture.”

7 ways to make climate-smart agriculture central to COP21 and beyond

What role does the private sector have in the link between food security and climate change in Africa? Through a series of exclusive interviews with participants at an ECDPM seminar on this topic, Devex got the inside track on how to make climate-smart agriculture more central to negotiations in Paris — and beyond.

These organizations are questioning the climate-smart approach due to the lack of “criteria to define what can or cannot be called ‘climate smart’” and the lack of “social or environmental safeguards.” Climate-smart agriculture, they say, fails to “prioritize farmers’ voices” and they have urged decision-makers to instead support agro-ecology.

“Climate-smart agriculture is a very new way of looking at agriculture … there is going to be a lot of controversy around it for some time,” Kalibata said.

It is a term that people define very differently, according to Lozman, who believes it is necessary to be careful about labels. Instead what’s crucial, he said, is to “focus on specific gaps in the food security that need to be filled.”

Filling these gaps requires significant resources. Lozman told Devex that if money is well spent and if it could be shown that investments are genuinely helping farmers adapt to a changing world, he is confident that the donor community would respond in-kind by increasing the available resources. “The best way to raise resources is to find really smart ways to spend [what] we currently have,” he said.

Kalibata’s organization AGRA — founded in 2006 through a partnership between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — works with commercial banks, funds like the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and is investing in support to governments to use excess liquidity to reduce interest rates for agricultural actors. It looks at commercial financing, venture capital and impact investing, helping design financial tools to make such solutions more available and affordable for smallholder farmers.

For Kalibata, the key is finding innovative solutions and exploring “nontraditional ways” to mobilize resources.

“We must figure out the best and the most creative ways to bring these [solutions] to farmers,” she said.

To read additional content on innovation, go to Focus On: Innovation in partnership with Philips.

About the author

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Elena L. Pasquini@elenapasquini

Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.


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