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OPINION: Can Africa and the EU join forces to boost sustainable farming?

by Million Belay and Emile Frison | @Million_Belay | Alliance for Food Sovereignty
Wednesday, 16 February 2022 12:11 GMT

A farm worker gestures as he walks between rows of vegetables at a farm in Eikenhof, south of Johannesburg May 13, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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As European and African leaders meet this week, making farming greener should be on their plate

By Million Belay and Emile Frison

Million Belay is president of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. Emile Frison is the former director general of Biodiversity International. Both are members of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems

Amid the fallout from COVID-19. vaccine inequality, migration, security tensions and inadequate climate action, much will be fiercely debated by African and European leaders at their EU-African Union summit in Brussels this week.

But when talks turn to food and agriculture, our two neighbouring continents could find fertile common ground for agreement, should they choose it. 

In the face of rising temperatures, malnutrition, biodiversity loss, and increasing health inequalities, there is now virtually unanimous agreement that fundamental transformation of our food systems is needed.

This has been recognized by both the European and African Unions at the UN Food Systems Summit last year. 

This week’s EU-AU summit could be a strong platform for forging a new type of partnership between two regions committing to reshaping their food systems to meet the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate agreement.

They could commit to redirecting finance and funding to the diversified, climate- and environmentally friendly farming that science tells us is necessary and practical to provide food and nutrition security in a warming world. 

The building blocks for such a convergence can already be found on both continents. African and European countries have led the way in calling for agroecological transformation.

A total of 13 African and 6 European governments have joined a new international Agroecology Coalition, including France, current holder of the EU Presidency, and Senegal, chair of the African Union. Both are global pioneers of policies in support of agroecology. 

From different entry points, African and European countries are leading on implementing transformative food policies. 

The EU is rolling out a ‘Farm To Fork’ strategy that promises to put EU agriculture on a more sustainable footing, as part of its Green Deal.

This includes targets to reduce reliance on pesticides and use of antibiotics for farmed animals, and to increase organically farmed land - though critics would like to see it go further in more ambitious targets and cut excessive meat production and consumption.

For their part, every African Union head of state has endorsed the Ecological and Organic Agriculture Initiative, aiming to scale up sound practices across the continent.

The initiative promotes farmer training, agroforestry, and supports new markets for sustainable and traditional foods.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is also leading in supporting innovative approaches towards agroecology - with farmer-to-farmer exchanges, demonstration farms, and tailored farmer advisory services - in partnership with farmers and local NGOs.

Civil society groups have also been pushing for ambitious changes. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, for example, has led a continent-wide dialogue on the need for a food policy in Africa to achieve healthy and sustainable diets for all. 

Greater collaboration between the two continents could help reinforce these promising strategies, particularly in the face of blockages from large investors in Africa such as the World Bank, USAID and the Gates Foundation which continue to promote high-input monoculture commodity production.

Contrary to suggestions that the EU’s Green Deal policies would harm African food security, the EU’s Farm to Fork promises to reduce harms done to the climate, soil health and biodiversity from agriculture.

If done in the right way, it could provide a pathway away from a model that has also damaged African countries, with dumping of below-cost commodity crops that undercut local markets, encourage dependence on imports of raw materials and food, and promoting cash crop exports that have undermined food sovereignty.

The simultaneous growth of agroecology in Europe and Africa will contribute to sustainable trade flows between the two continents in the future, if the right support is put in place. If African food producers can be supported to sustainably increase production and to access markets at fair prices, they can deliver food security. 

Whether such reforms will be chosen from the summit menu remains to be seen. Listening much more to civil society organisations - African and European - who have been crying out for food system reforms to protect the environment and generate more value for farmers will be crucial.

However, leaders are looking for opportunities for strategic partnership to bring our continents closer together, and address the top priority issues of climate change and the green transition.

Cooperation around sustainable agriculture could be astute and truly transformative if endorsed at the highest level by the EU-AU Summit.

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