COP28: Calls for urgent need to invest in small-scale farmers as climate solution

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/boezie
Image: Getty/boezie

Related tags cop28 investment climate change crop health

Ahead of next week’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai, organisations are highlighting both the detrimental impacts of climate breakdown on global crop yields, food security and soil health, and the untapped potential of climate finance for smallholders.

A report from the social enterprise One Acre Fund, which supports over 4 million smallholder farmers across sub-Saharan Africa, highlights that while small-scale family farmers produce a third of the world’s food, just 0.3% of international climate finance was spent helping them to adapt to the impacts of climate breakdown in 2021. These farmers, meanwhile, face devasting impacts of climate breakdown on global crop yields, food security and soil health.

Ahead of the COP28 climate talks, One Acre Fund has released the ‘Global Croptake’ report, which outlines the detrimental impacts of climate breakdown on global crop yields, food security and soil health.

According to the analysis, the past eight years have been the warmest on record. Whilst yields of wheat, rice and maize have increased since 2015, severe food insecurity and undernourishment have been on the rise. Nitrogen leaching has increased in this time, and 33% of soils are already estimated to be degraded. Meanwhile, the number of climate-related disasters increased by 83% between 2000 and 2019 compared to the previous two decades (1980-1999).

Should we continue on our current trajectory, the report warned, by 2050 we could see 90% of soils become degraded, with crop yields declining by 3-12%.

One Acre Fund is therefore urging COP28 negotiators to invest in smallholder farmers as a critical climate solution. Just 2% of international public climate finance (US$2 billion) was directed at small-scale family farmers and rural communities, it claims – equivalent to around 0.3% of total international climate finance from both public and private sources. Smallholders’ finance needs, however, are estimated to be around US$170 billion per year in sub-Saharan Africa alone.  

Annie Wakanyi, Director of Global Government Partnerships at One Acre Fund, said: “Smallholders make up 70% of people living in poverty and their entire livelihood is often dependent on an acre or two of land. Meanwhile, over 2 billion people rely on smallholder farms for food and income. Despite this, less than 1% of global climate finance aids these farmers in adapting to climate breakdown.”

Supporting smallholder farmers ‘pivotal for achieving global climate goals’ 

Taking an “adaptation-first approach”, One Acre Fund trains smallholders to adopt climate-smart practices to increase farm yields sustainably and diversify income streams, and by providing safety nets to ensure financial stability.

For example, it supports mass on-farm tree planting – as part of its 1 Billion Trees campaign​ – and the adoption of soil health practices that sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

“Smallholder farmers have an opportunity to combat global heating, secure livelihoods, build soil health and safeguard a world for future generations,”​ said Wakanyi. “Meanwhile, the models and mechanisms to support them in this venture already exist and are ready to scale. We’re calling on the COP28 community to recognise the power and agency that smallholders possess by explicitly referencing smallholder farmers in the COP28 cover text, and acknowledging both the barriers they face and the opportunities they hold. A thriving network of climate smart and resilient farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa is a win-win for people and the planet.”​ 

Farmers are not being rewarded fairly

Separate research, meanwhile, claims that 350 of the world’s major food and agriculture companies are showing a “concerning lack of commitment to protect people and planet”​ and not adequately rewarding small-scale farmers.

The 350 companies assessed by the World Benchmark Index source commodities, such as coffee, cocoa and palm oil, from around 75 million small-scale producers based in 40 low-and middle-income countries. Most of these countries are impacted by persistent poverty. While 94 (27%) of companies support farmers’ income stability through procurement and pricing practices, only 13 (4%) identify living income benchmarks or calculate living income gaps.

Viktoria de Bourbon de Parme, WBA’s Food and Agriculture Transformation Lead, said: “Companies are improving farmer livelihoods but not at a level that lifts them out of poverty. The food and agriculture sector must urgently put people at the centre of this transition, starting with the farmers their business depends on and the consumers they serve. Disappointingly, our data shows that farmers are not rewarded fairly.”

Deforestation commitments in the spotlight

Agricultural systems have been made a top priority at COP28​ beginning on November 30 in Dubai. Over 100 heads of state and government are expected to sign the first ever joint statement on food. A working draft says signatories will “explicitly integrate food systems and agriculture”​ into their domestic climate plans. 

The Global Alliance for the Future of Food, a strategic alliance of philanthropic institutions, has long been calling for such action on food and climate, most recently in a 2022 report​ that found over 70% of country climate action plans lacked adequate action on agriculture systems. However, the group compalined the draft Declaration contains no mention of tackling fossil fuel or energy use in agricultural systems, despite their accounting for at least 15%​ of all fossil fuels burned globally.

Anna Lappé, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, said: “The focus on food at COP28 is not only welcome, but long-overdue. However the UAE’s draft proposals fail to acknowledge how the use of fossil fuels across the food chain—from inputs like pesticides and fertilisers to processing, packaging, and transportation—is driving climate breakdown. Countries that are serious about tackling the climate crisis should go further than the minimum bar set by the COP28 hosts.”

90% of food and agriculture companies don’t do enough to farm sustainably

The WBA report, meanwhile, claimed more than 90% of food and agriculture companies don’t do enough to farm sustainably. While food systems are responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and agricultural expansion drives almost 90% of global deforestation, only 15% of companies have a commitment to zero ecosystem conversion, and just 6% have a time-bound commitment to eliminate deforestation entirely. Worryingly, it said, only 2% of companies understand their wider impact on nature, despite their reliance on the long-term health of the planet to grow crops.

There has been some small progress across the sector since 2021, the WBA noted. Almost 50% of companies have some form of climate commitments, of which 46 companies have scope one and two GHG reduction targets in line with limiting global warming to 1.5C and report progress, up from 27 in 2021, and 13 report progress against science based targets for scope three emissions, up from 7 in 2021.

Companies are starting to consider regenerative practices, the WBA report added – with 51% of companies now referencing it. But little is being done to reduce chemical inputs and water pollution, preventing the “real regeneration of soil and water”​, it warned. Only 12% of companies are reporting the level of pollutants they are putting into water sources, and just 2% have set committed targets to reduce water pollution.Only 31 companies (9%) have set targets to optimise the use of fertilisers, and 14 companies (4%) have targets to minimise the use of pesticides.

Speaking to AgTechNavigator​, Jenni Black, WBA’s Nature Transformation Lead said she was “encouraged”​ that agricultural supply chains were to be more closely discussed at this year's COP event. But she still lamented the “staggering​” statistics on deforestation. "There is gulf between a general recognition of the issue and starting to work towards it and then really looking at the actions that we need to reach net zero by 2050,” ​she noted.

“To reach net zero by 2050, we know we must end deforestation by 2025. Food and agriculture companies have a huge opportunity to simultaneously tackle climate change and biodiversity loss by eliminating deforestation. But despite some leading companies committing to end deforestation, our benchmark results show there is still a long way to go.”

Are COPs nothing more than talking shops?

These ‘staggering’ statistics on deforestation commitments also follow the COP27 event where more than 25 countries signed a pledge to end deforestation by 2030. With rapid action still demanded by the likes of the WBA, these types of pledges look empty.

Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, Varda, the agtech startup founded by Yara, has identified some cynicism toward the COP28 event among the general public.

Its survey of 1,000 UK consumers revealed that 69% believe COP28 is more about political posturing, with only 10% aware of COP28 objectives. Only 38% believe COP28 will lead to tangible change in the fight against climate change. However, nearly half of UK respondents (48%) think COP28 is a step in the right direction for addressing climate change.

Davide Ceper, CEO at Varda, said: “It’s clear that there is scepticism regarding the effectiveness of COP. However, it’s heartening to see that many still view it as a vital platform for instigating change.”

Collaboration is key to ‘safeguarding our collective future’, he added. “This collaboration needs to encompass everyone; from the political establishment to the corporate world, from activists to NGO to common citizens.

“While the aspiration is clearly present in all sectors, the conviction, according to survey respondents, seems lacking. This underscores the pressing need for more education and involvement of all communities in the concerted efforts to address this global issue.”​ 

Join agtech experts for World Agri-Tech Dubai​, December 4-5 to forge new partnerships, drive forward industry projects and discover the latest innovations and market opportunities advancing food security and climate resilient farming in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

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