The last COP in Glasgow confirmed the reluctance of rich countries to assume their historical responsibility for the degradation of the planet’s climate and to honor their commitment to finance the adaptation of the most vulnerable countries to the inevitable consequences of climate change. Current reports show in particular that the countries of the tropical and subtropical zones with low greenhouse gas emissions will be and have begun to be the most impacted by the consequences of global warming. Agriculture being dependent on climatic conditions, this vital economic sector will be the first victim of climate degradation and hazards. Humanity in general and Africa, in particular, are therefore challenged to redesign our food production system and to promote productive, resilient, non-destructive and even regenerative agrosystems for agricultural land and ecosystems. The good news is: this is an achievable objective.
Agriculture is at the core of 21st-century problems.
The map below shows that a significant decline in agricultural yields is expected to affect most, if not all, tropical and subtropical areas.
This projection is only a hypothesis, but it is strongly supported by various scientific studies. The inertia of the climate system combined with that of the political decision-making systems regarding the effective reduction of greenhouse gas emissions forces us to take it seriously and to wonder how to avoid this catastrophic scenario.
Building resilient and productive agroecosystem
While agriculture is a sector particularly vulnerable to climate change, the current dominant mode of food production is also responsible for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, it is one of the major causes of climate disruption. Agro-industrial practices also contribute to environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
A series of large-scale experiments involving hundreds of thousands of farmers on all continents demonstrate that the immense challenge to redesign our food production system is not a utopia. The “Zero Budget Natural Farming” movement in India and the “Campesino to Campesino” movement in Central America, the conversion of Cuban agriculture under embargo into a sector that ensures food self-sufficiency for the population, or agroforestry practices in East Africa, are just a few examples of a much broader set of new agricultural practices that have been called agroecology, demonstrating that it is possible to build a resilient, productive agriculture that improves the living conditions of peasants and the food security of populations.
These experiences have common features: they are based on exchanges of experience and cooperation among peasants and between farmers and researchers, and growers’ use of locally available organic inputs and diversified seeds adapted to local contexts; they apply locally produced organic fertilizers and bioprotectors; they maximize biomass production and soil organic matter content; they enhance soil biological life, nutrient cycling, rainwater harvesting and management…In brief, they protect and regenerate the environment while providing livelihoods to families.
Interestingly, although common principles can be found from one agroecological practice to another, there is no technical kit that can be replicated identically throughout the world. The relevance, but also the complexity of implementing agroecology lies in the fact that the solutions it can inspire are always local; they are always “home grown solutions” that strive to make the most of the natural, human, social and cultural resources of the environment.
I saw this crucial point very clearly when the “Inter-Cultural” consultancy firm that I helped evaluate the impact of a project conducted with some eight thousand vulnerable and land-poor peasant households in the Southern Province of Rwanda. The project’s dynamics were inspired by the ancient Rwandan tradition of giving and receiving cows to manifest and seal alliances and friendships. The project, led by two Rwandan organizations (Adenya and Duhamic-Adri) and supported by an international NGO (Frères des Hommes), relied on the donation of pigs or goats to a few people who committed to donate part of the offspring of their animals in turn. The donation of animals was accompanied by training in good animal husbandry practices, in the use of manure and in the techniques of bio-intensive market gardening on a small area, in the utilization of diversified seeds, and in the cultivation of fodder trees to feed the animals.
As expected, the multiplication of animal donations has allowed an ever-increasing number of households to have access to new financial resources and organic inputs to improve the fertility of their plots; but it has also and above all been the support of new solidarities, of the organization of peasant collectives that have been able to organize themselves and obtain the support of local authorities to manage fruit and fodder tree nurseries, to obtain new collectively managed land, and to cultivate model plots to disseminate their good practices. The families involved in this project have not only been able to increase the productivity of their plots, to stop suffering hunger and malnutrition and to earn an income from their food surpluses, but they have also regained their dignity and confidence in themselves, in their community and in the future. The acquisition of agroecological, social and pedagogical skills has also allowed some of the people involved in the project to become trainers of other farmers. In others words, the benefits associated with these projects imbibed with local realities, practices, and ways of life are unquantifiable.
A credible way to achieve the objectives of the African Union’s Agenda 2063
The most systematic study of ecological practices published to date evaluated 286 recent projects covering 37 million hectares in 57 developing countries. It found increased productivity on 12.6 million farms, with an average increase in yields of 79%. Analysis of the study data by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that the average increase in crop yields in Africa was even higher than the global average. It was 116% for projects across the continent and 128% for projects in East Africa. This shows that redesigning our food production is not only necessary but beneficial.
The evaluation of the experiences grouped under the name of agroecology by various international organizations and the long-term investigation of these practices conducted by Olivier de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food from 2008 to 2014, has allowed a consensus to emerge within international institutions such as the UNDP and the FAO to consider that the extension of agroecological practices is one of the keys to achieving the sustainable development objectives of the UN Agenda 2030 and the aspirations of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 in terms of poverty and malnutrition reduction and of environmental preservation.
Moreover, since agroecology is based on maximizing the biomass produced and reintroducing trees into the agroecosystems, it can contribute to CO2 sequestration. Its extension would therefore make it possible to strongly limit the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, whereas agro-industry is currently responsible for about 30% of their emissions. The extension of agroecological practices has thus been described as a “carbon farming solution”. The generalization of agroecological practices could transform agriculture from a protagonist and victim of the biosphere’s degradation to a major actor in its enhancement. One could even imagine that in the future, farmers practicing agroecology would be recognized for their contribution to CO2 sequestration and the positive externalities of their practices, and that they would be supported in this respect.
In these times when good news for the planet is scarce, the possibility of building a resilient and regenerative agriculture opens a path of hope, which deserves to be taken into account and supported by the agricultural policies and programs of African countries.