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At COP-17 in Durban, Agriculture is Playing a Starring Role

Posted by Jenna Jadin, AAAS Fellow and Climate Change Advisor in the Office of the Chief Scientist in
Dec 02, 2011
Ashley Allen, from USAID, moderated the USDA sponsored agriculture events.
Ashley Allen, from USAID, moderated the USDA sponsored agriculture events.

Each year, high level government officials from the world’s nations gather together under the banner of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to confront the growing challenge of climate change.   This year, the conference COP-17, so named because it is the 17th such conference to take place since the UNFCCC entered into force, is taking place in Durban, South Africa.

This COP was my first, and it was definitely the overwhelming event I was expecting.  The convention center in Durban was filled with thousands of country delegates, businesses, and NGO representatives all pitching their ideas about climate to whomever might be listening.  And while all of it was fascinating to some degree, I definitely found the most interesting and easily understandable events to be the side events being held outside of the negotiations.  In particular, I found the USDA sponsored side events to be particularly noteworthy (though I suppose I am biased as a USDA employee). USDA was active at the US Center at COP-17, highlighting activities and efforts to tackle the agricultural challenges that come from climate change.  Wednesday, November 30th was the “agriculture day” at the US Center, and it featured three sessions sponsored or co-sponsored by the USDA.

The first of these events was on the Famine Early Warning System (FEWSnet), a joint project between USAID, USGS, USDA, NASA, and NOAA, that provides climate information critical to preventative action against food insecurity.  The highlight of the session was Gideon Galu, who works for FEWSnet in Nairobi, who spoke about the 2010-11 Horn of Africa crisis, and how they used the data available to them through FEWSnet to inform food security decisions.  Gideon painted the most comprehensive picture of FEWSnet, describing how plant cover, food prices, and food accessibility were all tracked in order to develop comprehensive pictures of food security in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

The second event focused on the Presidential Feed the Future (FTF) Initiative and featured talks by USAID Food Security Chief Scientist Julie Howard, Dubale Admasu, from the USAID Mission in Ethiopia, Charles Hopkins from CARE Ethiopia, and Director of USDA’s Climate Change Program Office, Bill Hohenstein. The event opened up with an overview of the $3.5 billion program and how it’s going to be used to raise incomes and reduce malnutrition among the 925 million who suffer from hunger, how agriculture can be used to drive economic growth, and how all of this can be done in an environmentally stable way. At the heart of FTF is the agricultural research strategy, which focuses on sustainable intensification, and encompasses three “big ideas” including developing climate-resilient cereals, addressing key crops and animal diseases, and seeing major gains in grain and legume productivity. Bill Hohenstein’s talk highlighted USDA’s contribution to FTF, including research, in-country capacity building, and advanced data and analysis. Several areas of research being performed at USDA that contribute to FTF priorities were also discussed, including projects to make sorghum more nutritious, to improve the disease resistance of several bean varieties, and to improve food storage and transport techniques and reduce the occurrence of aflatoxin contamination in corn. Finally, the FTF event was rounded out by two African speakers, who focused on the issues faced by pastoralists in Ethiopia.

The final event of the day at the US Center focused on public-private partnerships to promote sustainable agriculture. First to speak was Esther Magambo, Climate Change Director for the Ministry of Agriculture of Kenya.  Ms. Magambo noted the importance of agriculture in Kenya: it supports 80% of the Kenyan population, contributes 24% to GDP, and 45% of the government budget is allocated to support it. The second speaker, Kulani Machaba from Pioneer Hi-Bred, Intl., South Africa, who talked about the partnership known as the Africa biofortified sorghum consortium, which has a goal of developing transgenic sorghum that can adapt to harsh climates and has enhanced levels of vitamin A and zinc. Sorghum is a crop of major importance in Africa, as it is a staple for millions of people. The final speaker was Mohammad Jeenah, Director of the Agricultural Research Council in South Africa.  Dr. Jeenah discussed the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) and Improved Maize for African Soils (IMAS) projects, which are major collaborative efforts that are focused on improving corn hardiness, a staple crop of major importance for Africa.

Overall, the day was a big success at showcasing the importance of agriculture to global efforts on climate change.  As Kulani Machaba noted, “there is more of a focus on agriculture at this COP than previous ones, and that is appropriate because agriculture is a major challenge for Africa, and deserves the spotlight at this African-hosted COP.”

For more information about US participation at COP17 see: