The world’s smallholder farmers – and therefore much of the planet’s food supply – are under severe threat from climate change. While many businesses are stepping up their response to these complex challenges, and increasingly advocating for pragmatic and science-based solutions, many are frequently met with mistrust and opposition.
I have often heard businesses offer no-nonsense ideas for sustainable agricultural practice, and whilst I am not defending all private sector initiatives, I am still yet to see little horns protruding from their CEO’s scalps. Endless arguments about trade-offs are dangerously counter productive, and conspiracy theories a critical waste of time and energy. The real debate is somewhere else: in trying to understand —and help others understand—the significant benefits to the poorest and most vulnerable from “climate-smart agriculture” (CSA). The founders of this concept, of which CGIAR can claim to be one, designed it to generate co-benefits for farmers from the genuine combination of adaptation, mitigation and food security in agriculture.
CSA is a smart combination of strategies that will help farmers adapt to climate change, mitigate their own contributions to greenhouse gases whilst ensuring their food security at the same time. The operative word here is ‘combination’. CSA is not a chocolate box of solutions; each of the three pillars must be represented. This can be complex, and is also where businesses can come under fire – it is all too easy to jump on the CSA bandwagon touting a cheap mitigation solution, while ignoring adaptation and food security. And this will not wash.
Business and climate-smart agriculture in action
There are many ways that businesses can bring climate-smart solutions to farmers that incorporate all three of these critical pillars. The Livelihoods Carbon Fund, made up to 10 European investors and spearheaded by multinational food company Danone, is an investment fund that finances carbon-saving initiatives.
In Burkina Faso, a key producer and exporter of peanuts, the fund is equipping 30,000 households with improved stoves that require much less firewood. Poor soil quality in this region has been compounded by alarmingly high levels of deforestation, as 80 per cent of domestic energy is fuelled by firewood. As the new stoves will result in less trees being cut down, soils will stand a chance of regenerating under forest cover, enabling more crops to be grown. More trees will improve the variety of foods such as fruit and nuts available to the surrounding communities. Furthermore, the fund estimates that it will generate 689,000 tonnes of carbon offset credits, which can be used by companies financing the fund, or purchased by others. This virtuous circle continues to generate income that can finance further climate change adaption strategies.
Adaptation methods can also pay for mitigation. Index-based insurance schemes are showing promise across the globe; private insurance companies are working with national governments to set up schemes that will secures farmers’ incomes in times of climate variability. Temperatures or rainfall levels reaching a certain threshold can trigger payouts. This increased financial security can encourage farmers to invest in more costly agricultural practices like conservation agriculture that store carbon in soil, rather than releasing it to the atmosphere.
Food and agribusiness can no longer be a hidden emitter
Being serious about tackling climate change today means addressing the key priority sectors that will emit the most tomorrow. According to IPCC, with deforestation for agriculture extension; crops and pastures; and food waste, agriculture is emitting 9 Gt CO2e per year overall, which today represents 19-29% of Green House Gases (GHG). A figure long ignored that has made our food consumption a major ‘hidden emitter’ of GHG. But the worst is ahead of us. CGIAR research shows that, under a ‘business as usual’ increase of food production, the resulting GHG emission would reach 11 Gt CO2e per year. Now, let’s assume measures taken to mitigate emissions from other sectors (namely industry, transport and habitat, which have initiated relevant investment since the adoption of the Kyoto protocol) bring us to a world at +2°C in 2050. Then our food system would represent around 50% of GHG emission: can we really afford this?
Threats to our food supply from a changing climate are real. The private sector must realise that beyond quick wins, there are benefits from longer-term impact investment in CSA – and that CSA is a combination of solutions. NGOs need to find the courage to engage in a dialogue with businesses that genuinely want to make a contribution with an open mind. And researchers must step-up to the challenge, and swiftly deploy effective solutions to alleviate the burden of climate change from the poorest and most vulnerable.