Op-Ed: Ethiopian food and land use systems ripe for transformation

By Sebsebe Demissew, Professor of Plant Systematics and Biodiversity at Addis Ababa University and Executive Director of the GulleleBotanic Garden in Addis Ababa.

The United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, asked countries to announce new national commitments for cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the Climate Summit that took place last week in New York. The results were mixed. In the end, 69 countries came forward saying they were willing to enhance their targets under the Paris Agreement, although the world’s biggest emitters remained silent. 

Ethiopia was one of the countries to pledge to increase its climate ambition, after hosting an important meeting in August to rally support amongst African nations for declaring a climate emergency. At the Summit itself, Prime Minister Ahmed committed to planting 4 billion trees a year as part of our climate effort. This follows the record-breaking initiative the Prime Minister led that saw 350 million trees planted in one day. 

In short, the current government is putting the country at the forefront of the global response to climate change. But there is a lot of hard work ahead, particularly in terms of finding the best possible ways to use land to ensure it serves as a climate solution, a source of sustainable development and food production, all at the same time.

Ethiopia isn’t alone in this challenge. It’s no secret global food and land use systems are in crisis and no longer fit for purpose. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have told us, for example, that food and land use is responsible for up to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is the leading cause of damage to biodiversity, forests, grasslands, wetlands and other natural habitats.

At the same time, more than 500 million people around the world find themselves without adequate investment in or access to land and resources to institute changes, let alone the collective voice and power to change them.

The devastating sum of these inefficiencies are more than obvious in Sub-Saharan Africa. New modelling released earlier this month by the Food and Land Use (FOLU) Coalition found environmental degradation, poor diet, inequality and rural poverty are estimated to cost sub-Saharan Africa US$680 billion per year. Inaction is clearlynot an option. We either choose a different path, or nature will choose for us. We will not meet global goals designed to support people and the planet if we do nothing. 

The good news is that there are huge win-win incentives for governments to lead a transformation. The same modelling from the FOLU Coalition revealed that cultivating sustainable food and land use systems could unlock an estimated US$320 billion a year for Sub-Saharan Africa in new business opportunities by 2030, at the same time as restoring health and resilience to the land, population and economy.

To unlock this potential in Ethiopia, we need the government, business sector and civil society alike to commit to transforming the existing ways of doing things, which includes investing inregenerative agricultural practices and promising emerging technologies. 

We have taken the first step in this journey. Ethiopia is one of a handful of countries to take on this challenge and is partnering with FOLU to develop a strategy to identify appropriate long-term targets and the policies we need to achieve them. 

This will arm the government with the necessary data to make smarter decisions; identifying key sectors and the most effective projects and initiatives. If done right, these transformations are predicted to save the Ethiopian from harmful hits to the economy, including US$4.3 billion lost to land degradation. Ethiopia would also stand to avoid a 16.5% loss to GDP per year due to chronic malnutrition, and a further 10% to climate change impacts.

These transformations can, and must, work hand in hand with other national development strategies. The government, for example, plans to create 3 million new jobs. The FOLU Coalition modelling found, for example, that there are 120 million new jobs on the table if we get these transitions right. This could be a renaissance moment for rural farming communities desperate for investment in human capital and infrastructure.

The next decade is critical. Global and regional trends are putting new pressures on food and land use systems. But the potential for transformation has never been greater. A new generation of agricultural leaders is coming of age, and the initial steps taken by the Ethiopian government are promising. But now is the time to match words with action. 

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