The Future of Plant Science and Climate Change: Young Campaigners from Global South Offer Their Views
Four hundred and seventy-eight. That is the number of days between Greta Thunberg’s first school strike for climate protest and when she became Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Her name went from complete obscurity to a household name almost overnight.
Why the sense of urgency? To put it simply, time is not on our side when it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change. In 2018, scientists from the University of California Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab stated that we have 25 years to fight climate change. The #FridaysforFuture movement and climate conversations globally are being carried forward by youth campaigners, many of whom are from The Global South. We interviewed two climate change campaigners from Brazil and Nigeria about their experiences advocating on climate change and what it means for agriculture and food security. These interviews have been formatted and adapted from their original recordings for length and clarity.
You are a self-described ecofeminist. Can you explain how ecofeminism fits into sustainable agriculture?
For us to achieve food security and zero hunger, we need to attain gender equality. There is a big intersection between women, agriculture, and the environment.
In Nigeria, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw that it was the responsibility of women to grow food and feed their families. So if one woman can be empowered to feed a family, just imagine if many women are empowered! They can feed their community and nation.
Unfortunately, there are some outdated traditions that are really taking us a step back in Nigeria. Some people believe women do not have rights to land. This is a huge barrier not just for gender equality but also food security. It’s all interwoven.
Ecofeminism is also a fight for humanity at large because it’s not only for the women. In a world where we can attain gender equality, we can solve climate change and attain our global goals.
What got you started in your activism on climate change?
Being a climate activist to me is not a choice, it is a necessity. It is something that everyone should do.
Unfortunately, recently we are seeing more clashes between farmers and herdsmen. The northeastern part of the country is faced with droughts and desertification, and the herdsmen’s cattle could not graze enough there. They had to migrate to the north-center and into farmers’ land, and this has led to clashes, which I have seen close to where I studied.
When I saw all of this, I saw that it’s necessary for me to join my voice, become an activist, to stand for the planet and to speak the truth to power.
I decided to join the Fridays for Future movement to see how I could contribute my inputs from Nigeria to my community and to the world at large. To become a voice. As time passed, I decided to say “Ok, these are the issues that are facing Nigeria,” and I set off my movement, because we need an action in Africa that will become a revolution for change.
What role can plant science, biotechnology, and crop protection play to help farmers tackle food waste and increase food production?
There’s a need for drought-resistant crops. In Nigeria, especially in the northeast, there are issues with droughts, conflicts, and deforestation. It affects the country at large and can lead to a hunger pandemic. So we need drought-resistant and disease-resistant crops to boost our agricultural system.
And what can be done in Nigeria to encourage more sustainable practices?
Agriculture needs to be prioritized. The population keeps rising, the rate of hunger is increasing—not just in Nigeria but globally too. The World Food Programme has expressed concerns about the future landscape. If agriculture is not prioritized, it will be a calamity.
Education is key. For us to stop climate change, we have to make sustainability an attitude—not just a practice.
For example, we can help educate farmers to bury food waste in the soil to boost the production of these crops, rather than burn it. Or we can grow crops and livestock in the same farm to reduce pollution and emissions. This way they will maintain a circular economy.
Farmers should also be given access to resources, loans, and the technologies needed for them to participate in sustainable agricultural practices. Every activity carried out today must be sustainable.
What efforts are being done in Nigeria to mitigate climate change?
During the UN Climate Summit in New York in 2019, our President Muhammadu Buhari pledged to plant 25 million trees. We are also part of the Great Green Wall Initiative which was started by the African Union as an effort to build green landscapes that cut across the Sahara Desert.
Tree planting helps, but it cannot mitigate climate change alone. It takes years for trees to reach maturity, and we are still seeing deforesting happening at an alarming rate. So it’s not really an effort if we are planting trees but also cutting them down elsewhere, it amounts to nothing.
What is really needed is to change our path sustainably, implement more policies, and get away from fossil fuels and coal.
What do you hope the Fridays for Future movement will achieve?
Being in the climate movement can be pretty frustrating, tiring, and depressing. You can feel like giving up sometimes, because it’s not easy for you to keep speaking and keep moving, and getting to the point where your voice is heard and known can take a while. Especially in the Global South.
But I was really excited to give my voice on the global stage, especially during the UN Climate Change Conference COP25.
We are making progress. The climate movement is really making progress. In action, in ideas, in all forms. In the next 25 years, I want to see what we are advocating for become reality, become a solution for the people who are being affected.
For this climate movement not to die down and for us to see this through to the end, activists have to be empowered.
Cassia Moraes is from Brazil and is the founder and CEO of the organization Youth Climate Leaders (YCL).
What is the mission of Youth Climate Leaders? How do you mobilize young people?
Youth Climate Leaders’ goal is to enable young people to develop their skills to be more effective in addressing the climate crisis. We work by connecting youth with organizations so they can start careers related to the new climate economy. We are building bridges between green organizations that need qualified people, and young people who are eager to get involved in tackling the biggest crisis of the century: climate change. We’re the X-Men of the climate movement!
We have a network of more than 200 alumni, and by the end of the year, we plan on having more than 600. By 2030 we want to have more than a million people in our network.
Through our hubs, we actively develop, incubate, and support projects from our staff and partner organizations so that we can increase their impact. We want to channel people’s energy, anger, and anxiety about the climate crisis into action.
Tell us about your beginnings in climate change advocacy.
This is something I don’t mention all the time, but even before I started my environmentalist platform, I stopped eating meat. This was really hard to do in Brazil where there’s not a lot of vegetarian options. This was my first experience with a cause that was bigger than myself and my daily teenage problems.
I was in college around the same time that Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth debuted. In 2009, I started researching climate change and the role Brazil played in it. I’ve been working and advocating on this topic for about ten years now and I’m generally one of the younger people at these global climate events!
While I started my research focusing on biofuels, with time I changed my focus to agriculture because it is more relevant to my home country Brazil. Agriculture and deforestation are responsible for most of our emissions in Brazil.
When it comes to climate change, Brazil has a lot to lose, considering it is home to the Amazon Rainforest. What can young people do about climate change?
Of course, there are things any individual can do to help reduce the impact of climate change. Choosing to walk or bike instead of taking a car, or choosing not to fly if possible. But climate change is a systemic problem. You can be a perfect vegan who never uses a car, but if you don’t vote for people who care about the climate, and if you don’t change the financial incentives, you are not going to beat climate change.
That’s the big thing these youth movements are bringing to the table. We have to change the rules of the game, elect people who care about climate change, provide climate-friendly financial incentives, and make this a priority.
Farmers can be leaders in this process. While the governments are not doing as much as they can, farmers can find ways to combine agriculture lands with reforestation, while supporting policies for climate change.
Going back to the example for Brazil, some farmers actively support reducing regulations of the Amazon, and the whole sector is getting blamed for this. If you are a farmer, you should hold your peers accountable. We can’t just look at short-term benefits, because at the end of the day, the agriculture sector of Brazil will be one of the ones most impacted by rising temperatures and unpredictable rains caused by climate change. Farmers must see climate advocates as allies, not enemies.
What technologies or innovations do you anticipate being more widely adopted in the coming years?
Innovations don’t need to be technology-based; they can also be innovative ways of producing or growing. You don’t necessarily need new hardware—for example, innovation can just be how you combine GM crops in the same place, compared to monocultures. Or integrating your farm with native vegetation to restore lands or soils.
Any new innovation would be one that is less harmful and more nature-based. It’s important to invest in food sovereignty, to have the food you need around you, to integrate the agriculture sector with the landscapes, and localize the supply chain as much as possible.
As Adenike and Moraes so eloquently outline, the agriculture sector can play a leading role in addressing the impacts of the climate crisis. New plant science innovations allow farmers to grow more with less. For example, water-efficient maize varieties can prevent 25% of crop losses and no-till farming can help to sequester carbon in the soil. The plant science industry is actively working to adapt to the impact of climate change so that agriculture can continue for generations to come.
Adenike and Moraes are just two of the leading youth campaigners from the global south who want to see action taken against climate change. One way to support them is by following them on Twitter and learning more about their perspectives on the issues.