Southern Africa: Interfaith Groups Call for Agroecology to Be At Centre of COP27’s Agenda #AfricaClimateHope
By Melody Chironda
Faith communities all over the world are playing an increasingly important role in educating and encouraging followers to step up and take action on food security and the climate emergency.
The Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (SAFCEI) is a multi-faith organisation that supports faith communities in doing just that, by addressing ecological justice and sustainable living. With an emphasis on sharing training and experiences, SAFCEI in September 2022, hosted a workshop that provided resources on agroecology as well as sharing strategies to set up viable and sustainable agroecological practices.
But what is agroecology exactly?
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, agroecology “is a holistic and integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agriculture and food systems”.
It seeks to optimize the interactions between plants, animals, humans, and the environment while also addressing the need for socially equitable food systems within which people can exercise choice over what they eat and how and where it is produced”.
Or as Marieta Sakalian, food systems and biodiversity expert with the United Nations Environment Programme puts it, agroecology is an ecological approach to agriculture, often described as low-external-input farming. Other terms such as regenerative agriculture or eco-agriculture are also used. Agroecology is not just a set of agricultural practices – it focuses on changing social relations, empowering farmers, adding value locally, and privileging short-value chains. It allows farmers to adapt to climate change, sustainably use and conserve natural resources and biodiversity”.
So what does this mean for farmers?
Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, the global climate crisis has had immeasurable effects on both commercial and smallholder farmers’ abilities to grow food. Agriculture is facing the tremendous challenge of feeding rapidly growing populations amid extreme climatic events like heatwaves, cyclones, fires, droughts, floods, and desert locust invasions, which are happening more frequently and with more severity, and are driving millions into hunger and poverty.
Average temperatures are increasing faster in Africa than in many other parts of the world, thereby reducing yields. Africa is most vulnerable to climate change, although it makes the least contribution to factors that result in global and regional climatic changes, according to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ( UNFCCC).
Agriculture is the backbone of Africa’s economy and accounts for the majority of livelihoods across the continent. But the continent’s food security and nutrition situation is growing worse. Polity’s Temitope Folaranmi reported that over the past decade, Africa has experienced several episodes of acute food insecurity, which have led to the loss of many lives and livelihoods.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that most people and communities in Africa are directly reliant on the natural environment for survival and livelihoods and do not have the necessary safety nets to adapt to climate change.
According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the climate emergency threatens the lives and livelihoods of over 100 million people in extreme poverty. Global warming is expected to melt Africa’s remaining glaciers in the next few decades, and the reduction in water essential to agricultural production will create food insecurity, poverty, and population displacement. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the gross domestic product could be reduced by up to three percent by 2050. Even without the impact of climate change, global poverty is one of the world’s worst problems. It is estimated that one in three Africans, or over 400 million people, live below the global poverty line, which is defined as less than U.S.$1.90 per day. The world’s poorest people are often hungry, have less access to education, have no light at night, and suffer from poor health.
In Southern African, many people rely on agriculture as their main source of livelihood, meaning a different approach to agriculture is sorely needed. The agroecological approach to growing food has been proven to be beneficial to people, the planet, and the climate. The FAO makes the case for using agroecological methods to strengthen the resilience of food systems, especially in severely affected regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.
To adapt to climate change and create resilience, African farmers need to practice agroecology – a sustainable approach to food and farming from an ecological, social, and economic perspective.
Director of African Earth Rights, researcher, and seed expert, Stefanie Swanepoel explained the principles of agroecology. She said that the amazing thing about agroecology is that it’s actually a whole-of-life approach. “Often people think agroecology is just a way of farming, like organics or biodynamics or permaculture, but it actually speaks to the whole of life. Some people describe it as a way of combining science lived experience and local knowledge to make food and farming systems more environmentally friendly, and just more equitable.”
“So agroecology is very strong to say that farmers’ knowledge, farmers lived experience, their indigenous knowledge is as important as scientific knowledge. We can’t look at food and farming systems and take the knowledge that is created in universities or laboratories far away and ignore the people who actually live on the ground, and who understand how their systems work. You know, they have knowledge about the wild plants, they have knowledge about the adaptation of plants and climate change.”
“There are 10 elements or principles, which are efficiency, diversity, co-creation of knowledge, synergies, culture, food traditions, human and social values, building resilience, recycling, circular economies, and then proper governance. Many of these principles you could also use in your own life. Food systems do not stop with farmers, you know, we are all consumers. We’re all eaters and our decisions about where we buy food, and what we buy, impact the whole food and farming system. So we all have a big role to play in bringing about that as systems.”
There’s a big push all over African markets to include agroecology education at all levels of schooling. So from primary school all the way through to universities, and technicians”.
Swanepoel says that Southern Africa has been hard hit over the last few years with the impact of the climate crisis. She says that we need to make sure that our farming and our feed systems can weather these kinds of shocks and that Covid-19 really showed the shortcomings of our current food system.
“So climate change mitigation, in growing organically planted trees and making sure that you’ve got healthy organic soils will sequester far more carbon than poisoned soils, or soils that are farmed chemically. Planting hedges, trees, and natural mangroves, really get into the design. And that knowledge is also being lost and eroded.”
However, according to Africa’s largest civil society movement, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), agroecology is anticipated to be sidelined by governments at COP27 in Egypt this November, and Africa’s small-scale farmers are destined to be deprived of climate funding. The COP27 has been billed by hosts Egypt as ‘Africa’s Adaptation COP, but ignoring small-scale producers’ voices will only further undermine food security at this time of rising hunger. This warning comes after a large gather of civil society organisations convened in Addis Ababa from 19-21 September 2022 under the theme “Africa’s Roadmap to Adaptation through Agroecology: Defining Africa’s Position for COP27.” The organisations called on COP27 to put agroecology at the centre of Africa’s climate adaptation, creating resilience for Africa’s small-scale farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, indigenous communities, and their food systems.
Frances Davies, of the Zambia Alliance for Agroecology and Biodiversity, talked about agroecology and its impact on the environment, and about the total pushback against industrial farming. Davies went on to explain the large-scale support for agroecology and SAFCEI’s focus on food systems.
“Iif we change our food system, we’re going to be able to achieve all of the other Sustainable Development Goals. And we’re going to be able to deal with the food crisis or the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, our social crises, we can nourish children, again, we can deal with malnutrition …”
“What is preventing this transition? The concentration of power is right at the centre of the lock-ins driving industrial agriculture, driving climate change, biodiversity loss, and health crisis. Therefore, this is really important when we then look at how we are addressing some of the solutions to this crisis. We have been talking about climate change … at the international level for way too long, for 40 years now, where are we?”, she added.
“And we are very aware in each of our countries that our policies are being written by outside foreign actors continuing to benefit from the extraction of resources and agriculture and selling industrial agriculture systems into Africa, rather than being able to reclaim the power and transition to the food system that we know we need to do. And the fundamental aspect of agroecology … is it deals with this concentration of power.”
Busi Mgangxela, is a farmer in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, practising agroecology, who spoke about the role of women in growing food and the challenges of access to land. She says that agroecology as an integrated approach applies social and ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of nutritiously dense food.
“The majority of agroecology farmers are in rural areas, townships, informal settlements, and our backyards. These are women whose role is to make sure that our families eat healthy, clean food because of the inherent sexual division of labor and because they have to care for their families, and they have to do that work that has been put as a woman’s place or a woman’s responsibility.”
“Gender equality is an issue in agroecology as we see inequalities as women are victims of unpaid labour. There is a great workload due to women being involved in local markets. They go to the fields they plant, they do everything that men do … coupled with work that they have to do at home as women because culture wants them to do so, Mgangxela said.
“So the problem is that there’s gender inequality, which threatens human rights. Women need to be in positions advocating for policies that include food sovereignty, and nutrition for all. Therefore, there should be a combination of approaches to agriculture. There should be an emphasis on farmer-led research, there should be an emphasis on the integration of gender, and other social inequalities as we go advocating for agroecology in our countries.”
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