June 25, 2012 - Twenty years since Rio, the human family has made significant strides in the quest for sustainable development. My big idea is to make a major, collective push forward and invest our intellectual, financial and social capital toward creating a new type of agriculture that enhances productivity, builds resilience, and helps sequester carbon to meet the threat posed by climate change.
The big numbers in the agricultural sector are stark. Today, around one billion people go hungry every day, deprived of food, that most basic of human needs. Across the developing world, agriculture employs three-quarters of the labor force and produces one quarter of GDP. With world population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, food production needs to increase by nearly 70 percent, just to keep pace with more people and their changing diets.
High and spiking food prices have caused hardship for many and social unrest in over 40 countries, including in Africa. Prices of wheat, rice and corn prices have doubled, or more in the past decade. And the increase continues – according to the World Bank’s Food Price Watch, the 2011 average annual index of food prices rose by 24 percent compared to 2010.
To these challenges, we can add the threat climate change poses to farmers and to the sustainability of their output. According to optimistic lower-end projections of temperature rise, a changing climate may reduce cereal yields globally by as much as 10 to 20 percent by the 2050s in the absence of adaptation.
Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) offers real hope. For starters, CSA is about increasing farm productivity in an environmentally and socially sustainable way. It is about strengthening farmers’ resilience to climate change, and reducing agriculture’s climate imprint by curbing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing carbon storage, including in the soil. Climate-smart agriculture relies on the limitless ingenuity of farmers, and includes proven techniques such as mulching, and developing drought or flood tolerant crops to meet the demands of a changing climate. But CSA is also about innovative practices such as better weather forecasting, early warning systems and risk insurance. Finally, CSA also seeks to highlight changes in policy that will help farmers adapt and succeed.
Progress on climate-smart agriculture is being achieved. In Kenya, on nearly 45,000 hectares, a project is helping 60,000 farmers to adopt land management practices such as cover crops, rotations, compost and residue management and mulching. Farmers not only get economic benefits from increased yields, but in a first example of its type, they are set to receive income from sequestering carbon, thanks to an innovative carbon finance scheme. In Niger, agroforestry techniques applied on five million hectares have benefited over 1.25 million households, sequestered carbon, and produced an extra half-million tons of grain per year. On Rwanda’s fertile hillsides a project to better manage rainfall to reduce hillside erosion is delivering dramatic results. Earnings have almost doubled to US$1,925 per hectare, and the share of production sold rose to 65 percent, exceeding the first-year target of 30 percent.
In a significant development, a new, cutting-edge methodology has just been approved by the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) to measure and value carbon sequestered through sustainable management of agricultural land. The VCS remains the gold standard in the voluntary carbon market, and the methodology gives project developers the opportunity to account for emission reductions from improved management of land. The quantified carbon can then be sold on the voluntary market on behalf of farmers to generate additional revenues.
Global agriculture is at a crossroads. Twenty years after the Rio Earth Summit, hunger continues to rank as one of the most pernicious development challenges facing the human family. Efforts to tackle current food deficits while preparing to meet future food needs must go hand in hand. Climate-smart agriculture holds significant promise for accelerating the fight against hunger and increasing food production. It is a big idea whose time has come.
The author is Jamal Saghir, Director for Sustainable Development in the World Bank’s Africa Region