May 16, 2014

Commentary - Why We Still Need a Work Programme on Agriculture

By Dyborn Chibonga, Farming First spokesperson and CEO of the National Smallholder Farmer Association of Malawi

Climate change has been dubbed by scientists as "the greatest challenge of our time". The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that without decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, many of the impacts of global warming will not only continue, but accelerate.  

As this latest IPCC report makes explicit for the first time, climate change poses a great threat to agriculture thus global food security. The relationship between climate change, agriculture and food security is complex and dynamic. Agriculture is estimated to directly contribute to about 14% of global GHG emissions– yet farmers in the developing world that rely mainly on rain-fed agriculture suffer the worst consequences of the resulting change in weather patterns.

There is now a growing recognition of the need to promote more productive and sustainable farming systems that will not only be able to adapt to the changes we predict in the climate, but can also mitigate agriculture’s current effect on climate change.

To this end, the international community has recognized the importance of integrating issues relating to agriculture into the negotiations on the international climate change regime under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

Unfortunately, negotiators at the COP19 climate talks in Warsaw in November 2013 struggled to make headway on agriculture. It had been agreed back in 2011 that the UNFCCC would consider the adoption of a work programme for agriculture under the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advise (SBSTA) that would support research on climate change mitigation and adaptation. However, further negotiations on this matter at COP19 were blocked and effectively postponed to SBSTA 40 in Bonn, Germany, later this year.

With the recognition by many around the world that climate change is having a significant negative impact on agricultural productivity and the ability to feed current and future generations, it is both surprising and disappointing that the negotiators decided to put agriculture on the sidelines.

Fortunately, some researchers, smallholder farmers, non governmental organisations, businesses and development agencies are getting on with the job of adapting and mitigating the climate effects already being experienced in fields around the world.

In my country, Malawi, members of the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM) have reported the effects climate change is having on them. Reduced yields, increases in pest and disease attacks and high crop failure have driven down incomes for farmers. NASFAM has helped farmers adopt strategies that help farmers both adapt to unpredictable weather patterns, and lessen their own greenhouse gas emissions.

Conservation agriculture, which requires minimal soil disturbance, the use of biomass to enhance nutrients in the soil, and crop rotation, is one such example. The method is helping farmers both reduce their emissions and boost yields in order to meet the food and income needs of their families, communities and the country on a more sustainable basis.  

While the smallholders are at the centre of these efforts, they need more support. A political commitment, for which the first step is a work programme for agriculture, is critical to help them produce enough to feed their families and the growing world population amid worsening effects of climate change.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.