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No agriculture, no deal
30 November 2011
Fidelis Zvomuya


The dun maize field spreading out at Dumisani Ndlovu's feet at his farm in Giyani, Limpopo, offered a possible clue to human destiny. Baked by a desert-like sun and deliberately starved of water, the plants are parched and nearly dead.

Ndlovu, a third generation farmer in South Africa, grabbed a leaf from one plant that should have been plump with the staff of life. His face goes dry and looks even more stressed. "We are not going to feed the people with this," he says pointing to a water starved plant.

He adds: "The weather has become more and more unpredictable. We are losing hope as farmers, for the great agricultural system that feeds the nation."

Ndlovu says "It is no longer raining during the rainy season, but it's raining in the non-rainy season. The cold season is also shrinking."

Farmers throughout the country face rising difficulties, water shortages as well as flash floods. Their crops and livestock are afflicted by emerging pests and diseases and by blasts of heat beyond anything they remember.

Many of his and other farmers' failed harvests of the past decade were a consequence of weather disasters, like floods, drought and blistering heat waves. Scientists believe some, though not all, of those events were caused or worsened by human-induced global warming and climate change.

As Ndlovu and other farmers around the world mourn the death of their profession, another try for a global climate effort was taking place in Durban.

Durban COP17

With intensifying climate disasters and global economic turmoil as the backdrop, delegates from 194 nations gathered in Durban to try to advance, if only incrementally, the world's response to dangerous climate change.

To those who have followed the negotiations of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change over their nearly 20-year history, the conflicts and controversies to be taken up in Durban are monotonously familiar, the differing obligations of industrialised and developing nations, the question of who will pay to help poor nations adapt, the urgency of protecting tropical forests, the need to develop and deploy clean energy technology rapidly.

The negotiating process itself is under fire from some quarters, including the poorest nations, who believe their needs are neglected in the fight among the major economic powers.

But scientists warn that this squabbling serves only to delay actions that must be taken to reduce climate-altering emissions and to fortify vulnerable nations' ability to respond to the changes they say are surely coming indeed, that many say are already here.

Temperatures are rising rapidly during the growing season in some of the most important agricultural regions in the country, according to Belynda Petrie, Chief Executive Officer of One World, a Cape Town based climate consultancy organisation.

Petrie says in coming decades, farmers need to withstand whatever climate shocks come their way while roughly doubling the amount of food they produce to meet rising demand. "And they need to do it while reducing the considerable environmental damage caused by the business of agriculture."

Oxfam's Kelly Dent says storms and drought that have unleashed dangerous surges in food prices could be a "grim foretaste" of what lies ahead when climate change bites more deeply.

Presenting the British charity report issued at the beginning of the conference, Dent said production in major crops are to fall and added that millions of people had been driven into poverty over the past year and half.

"This will only get worse as climate change gathers pace and agriculture feels the heat. When a weather event drives local or regional price spikes, poor people often face a double shock," Dent said.

The organisation appealed to the conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to slash greenhouse gases and activate a planned fund to help poor countries.

One goal of the Durban talks is breathe life into a "Green Climate Fund" that, by 2020, would channel as much as 100 billion dollars a year to countries that are in the brunt of climate change. But approval has been held up by squabbles over the fund's design.

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, FARNPAN Chief Executive Officer says if there is no agriculture work programme, then there is no deal. Sibanda says this year's Agriculture and Rural Development Day on 3 December aims to highlight and promote the climate smart agriculture agenda.

"Currently agriculture is on the side lines of UNFCCC negotiating text so the ultimate goal of the Agriculture and Rural Development Day is to ensure that the agriculture sector is elevated and considered as a priority sector in the negotiations. We are saying no agriculture work programme, no deal," she says.

To add to Sibanda's comments, recently African ministers responsible for agriculture endorsed a declaration to push for 'climate-smart agriculture', which is built on three pillars - increasing productivity and incomes, enhancing resilience of livelihoods and ecosystems and reducing and removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

South Africa's agriculture minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson says as African agriculture ministers they are going to use COP17 to tell the world about the importance of climate-smart agriculture.

"Agriculture is extremely vulnerable to climate change and there is consensus that climate change will have a significant impact on agriculture in developing countries. "Even a 2°C rise in the mean global temperature by the year 2100, which is regarded as an optimistic scenario, will radically change the face of farming."

South Africa's white paper on climate change warns that crop failures could therefore have a significant economic impact.

"Any changes in the climate could have wide ranging repercussions not only in the production of food, fibre and fuel, but also on GDP, employment and foreign exchange earnings. It will have dramatic consequences for agriculture. Water resources will become more variable, droughts and floods will stress agricultural systems, some coastal food-producing areas will be inundated by the rising sea levels, and food production will fall in some places," she says.

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