Despite not securing a phase-out of fossil fuels, COP28 witnessed a historic focus on food. The summit saw over $7 billion in funding commitments, as well as a pledge by 152 countries to include food and agriculture in their climate plans.
There is no doubt that commercial agriculture is a major contributor to the climate crisis, responsible for around a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to Greenpeace. This includes emissions from land use change, on-farm production, processing, transport, packaging, and retail. With the world's population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, issues around food security and environmental impact are only likely to escalate.
While funding commitments for climate-smart agriculture at COP28 offers a glimmer of hope, it remains to be seen how much of it will materialize. Right now the heatwaves, floods, and droughts are no longer distant warnings, but a lived experience for millions of people.
Transforming food systems - A Malawian perspective on COP28 and beyond
Dr. Betty Chinyamunyamu is a force to be reckoned with in the Malawian agricultural landscape. As the CEO of the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi (NASFAM), she leads the largest independent smallholder-owned association in the country, empowering over 100,000 members. Her passion for sustainable agriculture and her dedication to supporting smallholder farmers are evident in her work.
With the COP28 commitment to addressing the challenges in food systems, Dr. Chinyamunyamu offers a grounded perspective from the heart of Malawian agriculture. While she acknowledges the potential of these initiatives, she emphasizes the need for practical implementation that considers the realities of smallholder farmers.
"For example over the past two years, there have been four severe cyclones that have devastated communities with many farmlands being lost," she said. "Consequently, the smallholders are eager to adopt any practices and innovations that are meant to assist them. However, what is important is that the farmers must fully comprehend the initiatives. What this means therefore is that the smallholders must be involved in all processes related to the initiatives. They need to participate in their development as well as monitor their effectiveness and not only be involved in their implementation. It is those initiatives where the smallholders are taken as full participants in the initiatives and not mere beneficiaries that more effectiveness is achieved.
"Smallholders must also be adequately trained so that they understand the principles well enough. There must also be an effort to translate all relevant communication into vernacular languages so that the smallholders can easily understand," she said.
Dr. Chinyamunyamu pointed out that Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) is not just about farming, it's about building resilience in the face of a changing climate.
"Climate-smart agriculture is an integrated farming practice that incorporates sustainable production practices to enhance resilience and reduce environmental impact. It involves using climate-resilient crops and crop varieties, efficient soil and water management, and precision farming to adapt to changing conditions and mitigate climate change effects on agriculture," she said.
"Beyond adapting, CSA mitigates climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture," said Chinyamunyamu.
"This three-pronged approach aims to not only boost yields and farmer incomes but also build resilience against climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture."
Dr. Chinyamunyamu painted a clear picture of how developing nations can unlock their full potential in tackling climate challenges. "It's not just about securing funds," she said, "but about building the capacity to utilize and manage them effectively." She emphasized the crucial role of strong governance, advocating for "robust institutions that can steward resources and monitor their impact." Enhanced transparency, she believes, is equally vital, "building trust and attracting diverse funding sources, empowering nations to chart their own climate-resilient course." Beyond structures, Dr. Chinyamunyamu highlighted the importance of "capacity-building programs and partnerships", equipping nations to "access, manage, and allocate funds effectively for impactful climate initiatives".
How the $100 billion climate finance gap hinders progress
Dr. Chinyamunyamu added that "the struggle to meet the $100 billion annual commitment in the Paris Agreement is casting a long shadow over our fight against climate change."
The $100 billion goal, set in 2009 and reaffirmed in 2015, was meant to be a collective effort by developed nations to support developing countries in tackling climate challenges. It's a critical lifeline for nations facing rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and shifting agricultural patterns. Yet, despite repeated pledges, the actual flow of funds has fallen short. In 2020, developed countries only managed to mobilize $83.3 billion, leaving a significant gap.
This unmet promise, she argues, "cripples the ability of developing nations, who are often on the frontlines of climate impacts, to implement crucial adaptation and mitigation measures."
"The shortfall impacts developing nations' ability to implement adaptation and mitigation measures, and therefore negatively affecting the global fight against climate change," she said.
According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the annual financing shortfall for adaptation alone now stands at $194 billion to $366 billion, with existing financial flows reaching just $25 billion during the 2017-2021 period. The UNEP estimated that developing countries required $215-$387 billion per year until 2030 to adapt to climate impacts, with the figure set to rise.
The enormous funding gaps in these countries must be covered mainly by long-term, low-cost, and accessible financial flows from international public sources. The report urges developed countries to commit to a minimum annual inflow to the fund and establish a separate goal for climate finance for Least Developed Countries, focusing predominantly on climate adaptation, with simplified access to funds.
As the dust settles from COP28, hope for a brighter future flickers in the eyes of smallholder farmers around the globe.
Dr. Chinyamunyamu sees precision agriculture, wielding data like a modern almanac, optimizing resources and yields. Climate-smart practices, like diverse crops and regenerative techniques, will heal the land. Resilient crops, born of innovation, will weather storms, while water wisdom, through drip irrigation and rainwater harvesting, will conquer scarcity.
She champions digital tools, empowering farmers with knowledge and market access, but reminds us: that technology is just a tool.
"Integrating digital tools, data analytics, and farmer-centric approaches are also very important and can significantly enhance the resilience and livelihoods of smallholder farmers," Dr. Chinyamunyamu added.
Can $200 million boost global food supply?
In the face of climate's harsh hand, climate-resilient farming sows the seeds of hope. By adopting climate-resilient agriculture practices like water harvesting and drought-resistant crops, farmers can build resilience against climate shocks and ensure their communities have food on the table.
Climate-smart agriculture needs a critical ingredient: funding.
For small farmers struggling to adapt to climate change and feed the world, the $200 million partnership announced at COP28 could be a game-changer.
The $200 million funding commitment by the government of the UAE, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for the work of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and other organizations, unveiled at COP28 offers support for small farmers worldwide.
Small-scale farmers, who produce up to 70% of the food in developing countries, are central to transforming the food system. However, they receive only a tiny fraction of climate finance. The World Bank sounds a stark warning: Africa's broader socioeconomic development hinges on its ability to adapt and build resilience in agriculture. Without it, the continent's future prosperity hangs in the balance.
This partnership aims to accelerate the adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices, strengthen research and development, and support policy and practice recommendations. True transformation requires not just money, but collaboration, innovation, and a resolute commitment to building a more resilient future.
Enock Chikava, the Interim Director of Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, echoes this sentiment. He oversees developing and deploying innovations that support small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the unsung heroes feeding a vulnerable world.
"What's needed are the investments to take proven innovations to scale, to make the leap from reaching thousands of farmers to reaching millions," Chikava said.
He underscored the double burden faced by small-scale farmers. "Climate threats to small-scale agriculture in Africa and South Asia are about more than food. They erode an economic sector that provides employment for the majority, particularly women. This is about poverty reduction, malnutrition, and women's economic opportunities."
"Many have come forward at COP28 to support CGIAR. However, investments in small-scale farmers remain low relative to the magnitude of the climate threat to food production. I think the challenge to ensuring sufficient financing is twofold."
"So, helping small-scale farmers adapt to climate change is essential for driving progress in areas like reducing poverty and malnutrition and increasing economic opportunities for women. Improving crop and livestock productivity - meaning producing more food without expanding farmlands - is also critical for protecting wildlife habitats and natural resources and reducing food-related emissions."
"Second, investors need to see that there are many proven innovations already available that can help farmers adapt, and many African farmers already are using them. What's needed are the investments to take them to scale, to make the leap from reaching thousands of farmers to reaching millions," added Chikava.
Chikava also expressed disappointment with COP28's progress.
"Support for small-scale farmers and adaptation is far below what's needed. Negotiations could have done much more to address the disparity between adaptation costs and available funding."
However, he was pleased to see new efforts emerge at COP28 to elevate the importance of agriculture innovation as an essential component of the fight against climate change. That included new support for CGIAR and its partners to expand access to solutions many farmers are already using to adapt.
"But support for small-scale farmers and adaptation in Global South countries is far below what's needed. Many leaders remain frustrated that there is still a significant gap between the rapidly rising costs of adaptation and available funding. COP28 negotiations could have done much more to address this disparity. The imbalance is especially troubling because these countries have contributed the least to causing climate change but are suffering first, and the most. This is a colossal climate injustice."
Chikava said: "We need to acknowledge a measure of progress at COP28 while also making it clear that we are still not where we need to be on adaptation. Ultimately, achieving impact requires donors to sustain and significantly enlarge existing commitments. It's also important for world leaders to embrace clear benchmarks for adaptation in areas like agriculture that can hold them accountable for achieving specific milestones.
"Just as targets for reducing emissions are oriented around an effort to keep warming from exceeding 1.5°C, we need to be investing in adaptation with a commitment to achieving clear, measurable levels of resilience for vulnerable communities. Because even in a best-case scenario for emissions reductions, it will take a long time for these cuts to slow the current pace of climate change," he said.
Chikava highlighted a key issue that needs solutions tailored to the realities of the Global South, particularly when it comes to crop choices.
"A fundamental challenge is to develop tools, technologies, and solutions that are fit for purpose," he said. "That means strategies that align with food production in the Global South - that target the crops and livestock farmers raise and the environments and climates where they thrive."
"For example," he said. "500 million Africans regularly consume cassava, and millions of farmers grow it. For decades, this crop did not get anywhere near the attention given to crops like maize, wheat, and rice. Yet cassava is an ideal crop for adapting to climate change because it will survive in hot, dry, and flood conditions that cause other crops to fail."
He emphasized the need for investments in proven innovations, pointing to CGIAR's work with drought-resistant cassava varieties that have boosted yields by 30-100%.
"We've supported a CGIAR partnership that is using advanced tools to supply African farmers with a new generation of improved cassava varieties. These varieties are helping farmers boost yields by 30 to 100%. They also provide resistance to cassava viruses that are spreading more rapidly due to climate change," he said.
Making climate-smart a reality
Chikava said some of the most promising solutions for helping farmers thrive in a changing climate are already hiding in plain sight.
"There are several popular, naturally hardy food crops widely cultivated in Africa and South Asia that can help farmers grow more with less. I mentioned cassava. The list also includes millets, pigeon pea, sweet potatoes, yams, teff, and sorghum. The common denominator is that they all have been neglected by major breeding programs and that has caused yields to stagnate and threats from crop diseases to intensify. But that's starting to change."
But the tide is turning, said Chikava.
"We're also supporting an effort to use computer simulations and weather monitoring satellites to provide African farmers with long-range climate forecasts to help them anticipate and navigate climate threats long before they happen. They can plant sorghum instead of maize if rains will be light, or adjust their planting times if the rainy season is not happening on schedule, which is increasingly the case," he said.
Why supporting smallholder farmers is now a top priority
"I think it has finally become clear that for regions like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the climate crisis is largely being experienced as a food and agriculture crisis," Chikava said.
In the wake of COP28, the focus on supporting smallholder farmers seems to have increased. Chikava isn't surprised by COP28's emphasis on supporting smallholder farmers.
"Small-scale farmers are experiencing significant losses, and that has major implications for food security and economic stability in some of the fastest-growing countries in the world."
"I'm optimistic that more people now understand that if we want to be serious about confronting climate change, we must pay more attention to the struggles of small-scale farmers - and to the many opportunities available to help them adapt," Chikava said.
- Edited by Melissa Britz