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Now is the time to harmonize food and climate policies for Africa

By Meera Shah, Research Associate, Imperial College London and Malabo Montpellier Panel

Our food and climate systems are inherently interlinked. Extreme weather events and climate shocks severely disrupt entire food systems, reduce the resilience of food system actors and undermine progress made on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. On the other hand, unsustainable agriculture and livestock practices such as water and fertilizer misuse, deforestation, overgrazing, and land degradation contribute to nearly a third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Few places on earth demonstrate the linkages between climate and food more clearly than the African continent. A stable climate is the bedrock for Africa’s food systems, where over 90 percent of agriculture is rain-fed, and irrigation and mechanization uptake remain low.
Unsustainable food systems and climate change can no longer be tackled separately. A food systems transformation can support global climate action, and conversely, reducing GHG emissions can ensure that food systems can produce safe and 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. Smart synchronization of frameworks, policies and programs will ensure that resources are directed efficiently, and that positive outcomes are optimized.
The UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) has already fired the starting gun on aligning efforts. At the end of the UNFSS in September 2021, the Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized the importance of aligning food system transformation pathways with and climate commitments. In fact, the importance of climate action was represented across 3 of 5 Action Tracks at the UNFSS:
  • Action Track #3: Boost Nature-Positive Production
  • Action Track #4: Advance equitable livelihoods; and
  • Action Track #5: Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress
Yet, COP26 has failed – again – 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 (Egypt) will host COP27 in 2022, 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 UNFCCC processes so that they can feed off each other going forward.
In the meantime, policymakers can align policy interventions at home – both through the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) and Malabo Declaration frameworks.
According to the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, Africa is facing the fastest/most rapid of changes in its climate, relative to global averages. Between 1960 and 2015, continental temperatures in Africa underpinned by human activity rose by 0.65°C to 1.03°C. In some parts of the continent, the rate of increase has been higher. Precipitation patterns have also shifted discernibly as extreme events become more frequent and intense. Both southwestern Africa and the Horn of Africa have seen extended periods of drought over the last decade; in some cases, it has extended over two or more years and has led to widespread crop failures and loss of livestock.
Africa’s contribution to cumulative historical global emissions is minimal. But a worrying trend is developing. While global emissions from agriculture (both, at farmgate and through land-use change) have remained somewhat constant between 1990-2019, Africa’s food systems have resulted in a 30 percent growth in its emissions. In fact, Africa is the only continent where emissions from agriculture rose during this period. Both land-use change and farmgate emissions contributed approximately equally to the rise, with slightly higher emissions from land-use change.
Africa’s policymakers will have to support food systems actors as they adapt to a changing climate and empower them to mitigate further emissions rises.
Several African countries have submitted revised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) which reflect sector-level commitments, including for agriculture and livestock. While most of these NDCs focus on adaptation for their agriculture sector, some also include specific mitigation commitments for carbon sequestration in soils, and improved livestock and rice production. Few updated NDCs by African countries address emissions elsewhere in the agri-food value chain even though improved food processing, healthier diets, and reductions in food waste and loss can dramatically shrink emissions from agriculture and livestock sectors.
The performance of countries’ food systems and agriculture sectors are evaluated against commitments outlined in the Malabo Declaration. 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 least 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. On the other hand, 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 reduce the need to duplicate efforts for data collection and evaluation. This in turn would better measure and reflect food systems’ interconnectedness with the environment, biodiversity and climate.
Africa’s agriculture sectors are also required to produce National Agriculture Investment Plans (NAIPs) as part of their commitments under CAADP. 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 congruous and appropriately funded.
As Africa’s policymakers consider the horizons beyond UNFSS and COP26, they must pursue opportunities to harmonize the continent’s policies addressing two of the largest challenges facing the continent: hunger and climate change. Egypt’s hosting of COP27, the impending renewal of the Malabo Declaration and the implementation of UNFSS commitments all provide avenues to mainstream food systems and climate related targets. Doing so will ensure that both themes reinforce and amplify action.