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Op-Ed: Africa Middle East Must Act Now to Make Agri-Food Systems More Resilient

The world is marking the World Hunger Day on May 28 and the evidence is clearer than ever – maintaining on-farm productivity globally is critical to global food security. A profound transformation of the global food and agriculture system is needed, and swift action needs to be taken to provide food and humanitarian relief to the most at-risk regions.

Agriculture puts food on our tables and is a pivotal industry for Africa and Middle East accounting for approximately 30% – 40% of GDP in most countries in the region. From time immemorial, Africa has been the epicenter of acute food shortage mainly due to civil conflicts and wars, pests and diseases, effects of climate change and the impact of COVID-19. The Russia and Ukraine war for example has resulted in uncertainty thereby triggering some policy implementation to limit exports of crop inputs and commodities, putting food security at risk. We have seen, and will continue to see, the prices of agricultural commodities rise. Particularly hard hit by acute food insecurity is the continent of Africa where it’s estimated that in 2021, 523,000 people in Ethiopia, South Sudan, and southern Madagascar alone experienced a  catastrophic famine, which resulted to death and starvation.

On top of it all, the European Union Green Deal, if implemented arbitrarily, will rule out the use of certain technologies like pesticides and gene editing – the kinds of innovations that will drive sustainable agriculture. Limiting farmers’ access to safe and effective plant science innovations will have a severe impact on millions of farmers who rely on these solutions to support their livelihoods and will be detrimental for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. For the region’s farmers to improve their yields and to provide society with healthy food, we need healthy plants. Plant science helps protect crops, allowing farmers to protect their yield, and consumers to continue to access and enjoy food that is pest-free and disease-free.

African and Middle Eastern countries are particularly susceptible to trickle down effects from the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy, pushing food security and zero hunger (SDG 2) further from the realm of possibility. It is increasingly clear that technologies and practices that support agricultural resilience are key to protecting food security and human health for generations to come. The World Hunger Day is a golden opportunity for all stakeholders in the food sector to take stock of the successes and failures – by governments, the private sector, nonprofit organizations, researchers – in ensuring global food security in the Africa Middle East region.

While our industry may not have all the answers to these challenges, we continue to work towards solutions. The plant science industry recognises the important role it plays to meet the SDGs and is responding to this task by:

  1. Developing training partnerships across the agricultural value chain to ensure smallholder farmers can grow healthy crops sustainably. Partners include governments, development organisations, foundations, and food distributors, with millions of farmers trained to date.
  2. Promoting innovative crop protection products that effectively help farmers fight pests such as Fall Armyworm, which has ravaged sub-Saharan African maize crops, and exploring new solutions in biotechnology to aid farmers in adapting to changing weather patterns with drought-tolerant seeds. Both these technologies facilitate the production of safe and nutritious food, while safeguarding the environment.
  3. Advocating for responsible farm management, consumption, and production to reduce carbon footprints.
  4. Training in sustainable use and effective management of pesticides. Since 2005, our network has been working to collect, safely dispose of and recycle plastic pesticide containers, while innovations in crop protection and biotechnology have helped farmers reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Call to Action

For Africa and Middle East regions to fully, or partially, achieve food sustainability, they will have to confront an array of bottlenecks that have for years impeded the attainment of food security. In recognition of World Hunger Day on May 28, we call for all stakeholders across Africa Middle East to urgently to do everything in their power to strengthen their commitment to work together and find new ways to transform agri-food systems. This  day is a golden opportunity to remind the world to come up with practical solutions to achieve Zero hunger by 2030 as envisaged in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Agreement. These are just some of the actions that are needed to accelerate progress in the region on food security:

  1. Promote sound agricultural policies and on-the-ground investment in research and innovation.
  2. Support open, fair, and resilient global trade, including the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement in Africa’s agricultural sector as this remains key to supporting international markets and keeping supply chains moving; a sentiment that has been shared by G7 agriculture ministers and Food and Agriculture Organisation.
  3. Collaborate with leading technology providers to create powerful solutions for customers, increase high quality food production, and poverty reduction
  4. Create a conducive regulatory environment that enables the deployment and adoption of innovations
  5. Improve trade policy to better enable the free flow of food from where it can best be produced to where it is most needed.
  6. Improve linkages along the food and agriculture value chain and outside of the agriculture industry for new kinds of collaborations and innovation – from mobile to marketing to micro-financing.
    Improve policies to enhance access to necessary seed and plant science technologies.
  7. Increase regional integration and invest substantially in l infrastructure, agricultural research, new technologies (both biotechnology and mechanical) and extension services.

More resources will be needed to alleviate hunger in Africa because the number of people in need of food, especially in the continent of Africa, has been increasing since 2014.There is some hope for the region to achieve a better and more sustainable future for us all. This can only happen if all players – industry, governments, donors, civil society, and NGOs – work together and implement interventions to build resilient food systems.

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Sustainable technologies in agriculture will be key to EU Africa partnership

As Europe and Africa agree their new partnership areas, agriculture will be key for Africa. For the sector to be an engine for sustainable development, generating inclusive and environmentally sustainable growth, the partnership needs to adapt the EUs Green Deal to the realities of Africa. Sustainable agronomic inputs, including synthetic and organic pesticides, are needed in Africa. The partnership must, however, focus on improved outputs. That is to say – an improved state of the environment, improved food systems and improved food security.

Fueling sustainable development through agriculture

Agriculture is the largest sector in Africa accounting for over 50% of the jobs in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. Yet, the average farm in Africa only performs at 40% of its potential. Eighty-four percent do not use agro-chemicals. Studies have found that by increasing productivity on farms, one immediately increases the incomes and livelihoods of about 60-70% of people. Studies also suggest that in Africa, for every 10% increase in farm yields, poverty falls by 7%.

Getting the sustainable growth agenda right in agriculture is essential. Africa is home to more than half of the world’s population facing food insecurity and yet is also the world’s fastest growing continent. Currently, Africa is the second largest continent in the world accounting for almost 17% of the world’s population. Africa’s population increases by roughly that of France every 2 years. By 2040, Africa will be home to the world’s largest labour force.

Sustainable technologies can protect and improve food security, incomes as well as the state of our environment. Nowadays, we are seeing European friends focus on the perceived need to reduce agricultural inputs. Yet, studies suggest that enforcing top-down reduction of inputs in Africa everywhere will only leave Africa worse off.

Studies done by a range of groups including the European Commission’s own study, one by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one by Kiel University, one by Wageningen University researchers and one by Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy & Development of Kenya, all show that reducing pesticide use will lead to higher food prices and lower yields. A report from independent think tank European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) titled “A greener Europe at the expense of Africa?” also shows that there could be unintended consequence of worsening food poverty in Africa and increasing global warming outside the EU.

Innovating solutions to evolving challenges

The world’s leading research and innovation companies are striving to bring sustainable technologies to farmers, that increase yields sustainably, and to train farmers on the correct and safe use of technologies. As an industry, and together with local governments and technical institutes, and distributors and cooperatives, we are also giving agronomic advice so that yields that benefit the farmers, local communities and consumers, and the environment, can thrive hand in hand. Good agronomic practices like crop rotation and soil restoration, coupled with yield enhancing technologies that increase the health of a plant’s roots can help reverse soil erosion for example – a major threat to the sustainable future of our planet. We are also helping increase pollinators on farms, helping safely dispose of waste and helping connect farmers to market.

Technologies can help agriculture become more resilient to the realities of climate change and the evolving pests and diseases that keep threatening food security and livelihoods. These technology offerings can range from seeds that are more resilient to droughts for example, to those that are more resilient to the devastating Fall Armyworm. Crop protection and seed technologies are building resilience into our food systems.

The climate in Africa is causing Fall Armyworm to be a year-long challenge (cool, wet springs followed by warm, humid weather favor survival and reproduction of the pest). Based on 2018 estimates from 12 African countries, up to 17.7 million tons of a staple crop of maize, could be lost annually due to Fall Armyworm on that continent – enough to feed tens of millions of people. Overall, pests like Fall Armyworm and Desert Locusts, while not present in Europe, threaten the food security and livelihoods of over 300 million people in Africa every year. Technology, specifically good quality seeds and crop protection products, synthetic and organic, can help effectively tackle these challenges in an always more sustainable way.

Partnering for impact 

The necessary sustainable future cannot be made a reality by any single actor alone. Public private partnerships are needed. Billions of dollars of investments are needed to achieve sustainable development, and that needs to be coupled with an enabling regulatory environment, policies that deliver, and rapid implementation.

Around 60% of the world’s arable land is in Africa, but Africa is also home to the Congo Rainforest – the world’s second-largest rainforest that straddles six countries in Central Africa. What nobody wants to see is lower input use leading to an increasing amount of land being used for cultivation to try to meet growing demands, and that in turn to increase deforestation. A green agenda for Africa must capitalise on the potential of sustainable technologies – increasing the access to these technologies and eradicating illicit and counterfeit seed and crop protection (synthetic and organic pesticide) products that pose a risk to human health and the environment.

My message is a simple one. Agricultural inputs and technology can and should be a core part of delivering sustainable development in African agriculture. Farmers on this continent have to manage pests, diseases and climatic conditions that require a broad range of effective tools, and it’s a shared endeavour to ensure that they have these tools, have access to high value overseas markets and use products in safe and sustainable ways.

Jerome Barbaron is President of CropLife Africa Middle East.

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Only Innovation Can Help Africa Align its Food, Climate and Environment Needs

By Samira Amellal, CEO at CropLife Africa Middle East

For too long, Africa’s farmers have been pitted against its environmentalists. The common narrative seems to suggest that trade-offs are inevitable between feeding the continent’s growing population and protecting its land, water and biodiversity while taking climate action.

But it need not always be a zero sum game like this. Breakthrough innovations are redefining how these two sectors can work together, and researchers from both the private and public sectors have embraced this challenge by developing new products and practices that can address both needs jointly.

Crop breeding programmes, for instance, are not only focused on boosting yields, but also on helping farmers put measures in place to improve soil health and capture carbon in the soil.

Soils are amongst the biggest potential carbon sinks, and the practice also helps reduce erosion, retain moisture and diversify soils’ microorganisms.

New crop varieties are also being designed to use less water and to be more tolerant of droughts, heatwaves, and salinity from ocean flooding. Yet others are being bred to be resistant to common diseases, such as bananas resistant to “fusarium wilt” that is sweeping across countries like Uganda where bananas and plantains are staples in the diet.

Similarly, a range of different crop protection products, both biological and chemical, are helping farmers not only protect their harvests but also to preserve forests and other natural habitats. This is because up to 40 per cent of the world’s crops are lost to insects, diseases, and weeds, and farmers tend to clear more land for cultivation if yields on existing land are insufficient.

These practices are also helping African farmers anticipate new and more frequent pest outbreaks due to climate change. A recent case in point was an outbreak of the Tuta absoluta moth in tomatoes in 2014, which led to a decline in tomato production and increased tomato prices across the region. Many of the lessons learnt from that experience were then replicated when the Fall Army Worm began decimating the region’s major grain and vegetable crops including maize, rice, sorghum one year later. It was used again during a major locust invasion the year after, when the outbreak threatened the food security and livelihoods of the over 300 million people living there.

Using these crop protection products as minimally as possible reduces the risk of impact to biodiversity and native species while disposing of their containers properly afterwards avoids the risk of polluting waterways.

At the same time, advances in digital agriculture are allowing farmers to anticipate risks from weather earlier and more effectively and also to track what is happening on their farms in real-time and adjust their methods and their inputs accordingly.

These innovations cannot come quickly enough for African farmers, who are facing extreme pressures at a scale unmatched by most other regions. Much of the continent faces the highest risk of exposure to climate change, despite contributing only around three per cent of total historic greenhouse gas emissions globally.

At the same time, the average African farm performs at only around 40 per cent of its potential, and the continent contains more than 50 per cent of the world’s food insecure population and is the world’s fastest growing continent.

Ensuring farmers have access to the innovations they need is not simply a matter of ensuring they exist.  Farmers may sometimes need incentives and training to adopt these practices. They also need a supporting environment outside the farm itself, including viable infrastructure, harmonised risk-based standards, and fair trading markets and protocols. For example, transport costs in Africa today are on average 63 per cent higher than in developed countries.

The continent’s current agricultural subsidy programmes could be redirected to support more of these innovations that deliver a “double win” for both food and the environment. Even more, once these gains started materializing, the $35 billion currently spent on food imports could instead be used to further fuel the economic growth of Africa’s rural areas.

As the global community comes together for the United Nations Food Systems Summit, Africa can proudly take its place at the global table with a broad set of concrete solutions to offer. Agricultural innovations across the continent are showing that Africa’s farmers are a solution not only to hunger but to the environment upon which our agriculture depends.

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