Addressing climate change in agriculture: Opportunities and challenges for a systemic, ecologic approach

A recent workshop spurred discussion on challenges and opportunities for resilient food systems to hedge against drivers and impacts of climate change in Sub-Saharan Africa.

On the 16th of March, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and Biovision Foundation Switzerland organized a roundtable in Zurich, bringing together experts from NGOs, academia, and the private and public sectors. 

During the workshop, CCAFS, Biovision, and ETH Zürich presented flagship projects and relevant research. ETH Zürich outlined research demonstrating the significant influence of crop management on albedo (the measure of reflection of solar radiation by the Earth). This research indicates the potential for fostering resilience to heat extremes through crop management, via an albedo-induced cooling effect.

Biovision outlined its vision for streamlining systemic ecological interventions based on agroecological principles, aiming for a triple win: strengthening resilience against climate change impacts, increasing adaptive capacity, and realizing mitigation potentials. Opportunities to contribute to other sustainable development goals (SDGs) on health, nutrition, gender, and biodiversity, were also presented. Two examples of Biovision’s activities given—the push-pull system at field level, and the iSDG model at policy level—demonstrated the transformation potential of systemic ecologic agriculture.

Bruce Campbell, Program Director of CCAFS, presented the key elements of a systemic transformation to foster adaptation to and mitigation of climate change in agriculture. CCAFS is working to integrate these elements, which range from international dialogue to concrete action in pilot countries, into its projects. The transformation of food systems needs to be addressed on different fronts simultaneously, including farmers, policy environment, private sector, finance, and digital agriculture, as shown in the diagram below.

Key elements of an agricultural transformation (Source: CCAFS). 

In discussing the framework for transformation, workshop participants agreed that addressing the policy sphere and engaging in enabling policy frameworks and institutions is crucial for success. Fortunately, agriculture has been increasingly recognized as a salient issue in climate negotiations and discussions on the global political stage, in terms of both mitigation and adaptation (e.g. through the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture).

Yet there is still a significant gap between commitments on paper, such as the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and practical implementation. Despite the need for more cooperation and systemic approaches, isolated thinking, planning and implementation have deterred such efforts. The reasons for this are manifold, ranging from lack of resources, time, and political will, to lack of exchange and communication between key actors. One key issue discussed was the reluctance of many actors to look at the bigger picture, engaging instead in isolated interventions with short-term objectives and results.

Awareness of systemic thinking and solutions needs to be raised, and capacities need to be built and strengthened in order to achieve true transformation. One promising intervention discussed was policy support on the national, regional and local levels to assist in the drafting and implementation of the NDCs, climate actions plans, etc. Another intervention discussed was building on the local and traditional knowledge of farmers.

In summary, participants agreed that while climate change is a tremendous challenge, it also provides opportunities and momentum for a true transformation to ecologic and socially sustainable food systems. Consumers and the private sector, as well as political actors, are starting to shift in the right direction. This wave has to be caught, and new alliances and ways to cooperate and integrate measures have to be established. 

In the words of Bruce Campbell:

 Let’s not only focus on technologies. Finance, policy, and capacity are as, if not more, important. Measures need to be linked. Instead of individually addressing insular measures, we need to combine them.” 

Let us create and build synergies; let us team up to achieve food security through adapted, resilient and low-emission food systems.