Just transition to sustainable agriculture

By Alice Thuita

Despite being often overlooked in discussions around climate policy, food systems are beginning to earn recognition as both a driver of climate change and a key part of the solution. Concurrently, there is growing awareness of the need to transform the way food is produced, processed, and consumed in order to maintain a healthy people and planet.

But just as livelihoods of workers in the fossil fuel industry have been threatened by the move away from the fossil fuel to low carbon economies, so too are many farmers’ livelihoods threatened by the transformations in the food systems. Besides, there’s already deep injustice across the food system where rural farmers and workers (small scale) are already being squashed and exploited by a system that concentrates wealth, land, and power in fewer hands. It is even more burdensome for women and young farmers in Africa who are daily faced with these barriers. Meanwhile, around 20% of people in Africa are facing acute and chronic hunger. The changes and transitions are however necessary in order to reduce impacts of climate change from this day’s highly industrialized agricultural sector.

The concept of “just transition” in agriculture is beginning to gain traction. Its aim is to ensure that workers across the food systems value chain do not get left behind as the world moves away from carbon-intensive practices. The idea is to reduce the impacts of agriculture on the climate while ensuring the livelihood of those who cultivate, produce, and process the food is considered.

Agriculture and food sector is the world’s largest employer playing an important role in efforts to reduce poverty and improve people’s livelihoods. However, it is also a significant source of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions accounting for around 20-30% of the global GHGs.  This is whilst considering the emissions from activities across the cycle of production and consumption – including deforestation, production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, soil loss, livestock emissions, transport, heating, and waste.

Agriculture, at the same time, is the sector that is most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Food systems around the globe are struggling to cope with the extreme effects of climate change making adaptation of agricultural systems an urgent priority to safeguard farmers’ livelihoods, national economies, and people’s food security.

In developing countries, food systems have been largely transmuted by globalization offering massive opportunities for food workers across the value chain to access new and better employment opportunities. However, small-scale farmers and small-scale food workers in the value chain are still too often excluded from the benefits generated by agrifood businesses due to major control over agricultural inputs in global value chains and difficult access to assets such as financial access, land, and markets.

In the sub-Saharan Africa, 82% of nearly 700 million people living in the rural areas live in extreme poverty leading them to have few opportunities to secure decent work in food systems. The existence of gaps in the legal frameworks, fragile agricultural institutions and services and weak bargaining power of the small holder farmers exasperate the situation derailing the attainment of global, continental, and national goals and ambitions set to eliminate hunger and poverty, and creation of decent employment. Such include the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly, goal 8 on promotion of inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment, and decent work for all, goal 1 on no poverty and goal 2 on zero hunger, The Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP)- the continental initiative to help African countries eliminate hunger and reduce poverty, among other goals and targets set at national level.

Efforts to dramatically cut the GHGs in the agriculture sector is urgent. However, drastically applying these efforts could bring major disruptions to people’s lives.

The transformation of food systems towards agroecological approaches that work for people, nature and climate must therefore be done in a way that enables leapfrogging for practicability and simplifying lives. It must also be fair and inclusive to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities, ensuring environmental sustainability, and leaving no one behind. This is the just transition in agriculture. It must address- and not aggravate- injustices, ensure inclusiveness and participation of mostly the marginalized voices at the early stages, benefit not only nature and the climate but also ensure the right food for all while benefiting all in the value chain, and develop a comprehensive framework driven by governments and data. A just transition is critical in realizing sustainable food systems.

Unless the transition addresses these pre-existing inequalities, it could harm the very people whose main role will be central to a climate- safe and food secure future.

At the heart of AGRA’s 2022-2030 Strategic Framework (SF2030) lies the solution to addressing most of these pre-existing inequalities and injustices in the African food system. AGRA 2023-2027 strategic plan sets out an intentional approach to integrating nutrition, climate change resilience, and inclusivity into all AGRA’s work.

(Alice Thuita is a Programme Coordinator at AGRA).


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