Potential China-Africa Collaboration on Climate-Resilient and Sustainable Agri-Food Systems

By Lu Xinqing from China Africa Project

Martha Kasafi, a refugee from Democratic Republic of Congo, works at her vegetable crops next to a water pan in Kalobeyei settlement for refugees in Turkana County, Kenya on October 2, 2019. AFP PHOTO / LUIS TATO

Agriculture and food systems are a concept that aims at breaking down silos between the agriculture value chain, health, nutrition, and environmental sustainability.Agri-food systems are essential in managing and preserving biodiversity, adapting to and tackling climate change, realizing sustainable food systems, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).Today, over 820 million people remain hungry despite agriculture taking up to 50% of the world’s most productive vegetated land. Of the 820 million people, over 257 million (31%) are in Africa.

Food systems and nutrition – an infographic adapted from the FAO e-learning course Improving Nutrition through Agriculture and Food Systems

On the other hand, agriculture and related land-use change is already generating as much as 25% of the global annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause climate change. In particular, it contributes 44% of methane (CH4), which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than Carbon dioxide (CO2). Per unit of mass, methane is 84-86 times stronger than CO2 over 20 years and 28-34 times as powerful over 100 years.

As populations grow and natural resources continue to be fragile, it is imperative that all countries work in tandem to achieve a sustainable food future that will meet the growing demands for food, reduce deforestation, and restore abandoned, degraded and unproductive land in ways that help to stabilize the climate, promote inclusive social-economic development thereby reducing poverty.

“Creating a sustainable food future: A menu of solutions to feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050” World Resource Institute, July 2019

Climate-Resilient and Sustainable Agriculture Is of Particular Importance To Africa Food Security

Climate variability and extreme weather patterns, in part due to climate change, is a present and growing threat to food security and nutrition in Africa and is a particularly severe threat to countries relying heavily on agriculture, especially burdening the smallholder farmers. The effects of climate change reduced precipitation, and higher temperatures are already seen on the yields of staple food crops. FAO report estimates that without climate change adaptation and mitigation, by 2050 an estimated additional 71 million people will be food insecure in the world, over half of whom will be in sub-Saharan Africa. The gains made in increasing farming households’ incomes and food security can be wiped out by shocks arising from crop disease, drought, climate change, political crises/conflicts, and economic shocks (such as price volatility). In August this year, record floods hit Sudan. It has affected nearly 1/3 of cultivated land and about 3 million people from agricultural households, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The flood has worsened already acute levels of food insecurity in Sudan, which has been suffering from decades of civil war, economic crisis, and also one of the world’s highest rates of inflation after the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, cyclone Idai and heavy rains cause severe flooding across Mozambique and Malawi, causing more than 1,000 death toll, and more than 1,720,000 acres of crops including corn, cassava, beans, rice, and groundnuts such as peanuts destroyed.

In the event of shocks, the rural poor, majority of whom are smallholder farmers and even more so women, are hardest hit as they have the least resources to prepare, withstand and bounce back from a disruption.  

Beside climate resilience, sustainable agriculture production and land management is also of top priority. Unsustainable agricultural practice is a major factor causing soil degradation and deforestation, posing huge future risks for the global agri-food ecosystem. FAO study confirms that agricultural expansion remains the biggest driver of deforestation and identifies future risk areas in Africa. In Africa, the Congo Basin supports the highest biological diversity in Africa and contains 20 percent of the world’s tropical forests. The miombo ecosystem in east Africa alone contains around 8,500 plant species, of which over half are endemic.

However, due to unsustainable and illegal logging, small-scale agriculture, and colonization as well as livestock, WWF estimates that a minimum of 12 million ha is likely to be lost by 2030. Soil degradation is another case in point caused by unsustainable farming practices. In Kenya, the potential areas of land with loss of fertility was believed to stretch to 17 % of the country and 30 % of its cropland. Land degradation and the associated “nutrient mining” have significant impacts on crop yield and hurt the rural poor, who primarily depend on natural resources (especially land) for their livelihoods.

Why Is South-South Cooperation Pivotal in Building a Sustainable Global Agri-Food System?

China is one of the largest and fastest-growing trading partners and investors in Africa in agriculture products. The trade volume of agricultural products between China and Africa increased about tenfold from 2000 to 2018, according to China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. The trade volume of agricultural output increased from 650 million U.S. dollars in 2000 to 6.92 billion in 2018, registering an average annual growth of 14 percent. Timber, palm oil, cotton, coffee, sesame, cashew, cacao beans, donkey skin, cowhide are among the biggest agricultural products that are exported to China.

At the same time, by the end of 2018, Chinese companies had made an investment stock of more than 15 billion yuan (about 2.4 billion U.S. dollars) in Africa, with 115 agricultural projects with an investment of over 5 million yuan each. For example, the Wanbao rice farm project, located in XaiXai in southern Mozambique, is one of the biggest large-scale rice production schemes in Africa, and the investment also makes China the biggest investor in Mozambique of the year. It is worth noticing that most of the rice produce from Wanbao farm is supplied to the domestic market in XaiXai or its capital Maputo. This type of investment presents a golden opportunity for China to step up its socially responsible investment principles, promote climate-smart agricultural practices via technology transfer, and contribute to African countries’ national food security.

From the green global value chain perspective, it is imperative that China take both domestic measures and strengthen international cooperation to “green” the soft commodity value chain. As agricultural commodity trading has become more global and complex, it has become subject to a wide variety of risks and pressures. These pressures include resource over-exploitation, changing regulatory requirements in labor standards, environment rules, and international climate and sustainable development commitments.

Unsustainable patterns of agricultural production in producer countries in Africa can have a variety of negative effects, thereby affecting the security of supply, price stability, and diplomatic relationships between trading partners such as China. For China, the imperative to develop a green international soft commodity value chain, such as soy, rice, beef, palm oil and timber, has both politic and economic implications. Chinese consumer preferences and international trading regulations are shifting to encourage sustainability criteria. Furthermore, China faces significant reputation risks, supply and price stability risks, if commodity production fails to adapt to be sustainable and climate-resilient.

Sub-Saharan Africa plays a crucial role in the global agri-food system. More than 60 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is smallholder farmers, and about 23 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP comes from agriculture. Africa will have a population of 2 billion by 2050, and agriculture will be central to feeding all of those people. At the same time, Africa remains a net importer of food, although it has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. McKinsey & Co, in a recent study in 2019, determined that Africa could produce two to three times more cereals and grain, which would add 20 percent more cereals and grains to the current worldwide 2.6 billion tons of output. Agricultural transformation in Africa has the potential to contribute significantly to increasing global food supply and achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Next year, the Food Systems Summit will take place. The summit represents the Secretary-General’s ambition to launch bold new actions to transform the way the world produces and consumes food, delivering progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. In light of the Food Systems Summit, China and Africa can jointly play important roles in building a sustainable and resilient global agri-food eco-system. It is recommended that China-Africa cooperation in agri-food system focus on the three action points:

  1. Mainstream climate-smart and sustainable agricultural production
  2. Green the soft commodity value chain
  3. Strengthen African countries’ transformative resilience capacity

Recommendations

1.     Climate smart and sustainable agriculture production

Mainstream climate-smart and sustainable agricultural production and investment in African countries, by increase capacities of smallholder farmers and SMEs to develop and adopt appropriate farm-level technologies for improved productivity, crop, and farm management.

  • Design and implement inclusive catalytic projects in high-potential counties that will lead to scale, while taking advantage of new technology.
  • Accelerate the growth of stable SMEs in nutritional value chains, and promote private sector entrepreneurship or joint ventures to adopt and scale up the new technology. Such technologies include conservation agricultural machinery, postharvest technologies, climate-smart practices including farm-level irrigation practices and technologies, climate information services in target African countries.
  • Mobilize and coordinate resources in both product and technology (such as solar-powered processing facilities, conservation agriculture machineries, satellite) as well as soft capacity building and training initiatives and programs.

2.  Green soft commodity trading

Promote China-Africa cooperation in greening the Soft Commodity Value Chain (SCVC), through policy advocacy on Chinese domestic legislative and regulatory measures, international investment and trade agreements and standards, as well as private sector engagement.

  • Socialize best practices, knowledge products, and key synergic areas with regional bodies and national governments in Africa with relevant institutions in China; raise awareness on the availability of technical expertise and resources through the South-South cooperation.
  • Consult, engage, and support the implementation with Chinese businesses including both state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and private companies that involve in investment and trade in the African agriculture sector.
    • Consult businesses in the formulation of policy recommendations.
    • Support training of international best practices, due diligence, compliance.
    • Strengthen cooperation and coordination with stakeholders in production countries in Africa.
  • Strengthen African countries’ transformative resilience capacity

Enhance in African national governments’ and other stakeholders’ transformative capacities in climate resilience policy-making, implementation, cross-sector coordination; early warning capacity; and mobilization of green financing

  • Facilitate target African countries to develop and implement flagship programs that mainstream climate resilience in agriculture value chains and food systems
  • Strengthen African government and technocrats capacity in climate negotiation; climate resilience policy-making, implementation; climate financing and participation in the global carbon market through exchange visit, short-term courses and/or secondment of Chinese experts.
  • Strengthen climate information systems solutions through the provision of technical assistance and investments for climate and weather stations; strengthen national early warning and crop monitoring, prediction modeling capacity, enhance information dissemination.

Lu Xinqing is the former China-Africa Cooperation Program Lead for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Nairobi. She’s now pursuing a Master’s degree in environmental policy at Sciences Po in Paris.

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