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Agriculture in a changing climate

Climate change could push vulnerable small farmers beyond their ability to cope (© Siegfried Modola/IRIN)
Climate change could push vulnerable small farmers beyond their ability to cope
© Siegfried Modola/IRIN

Over the centuries, farmers have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to climate uncertainty. However, with rapidly rising temperatures and associated unpredictable weather, vulnerable small farmers could be pushed beyond their ability to cope. So how do we confront the impacts of shifting weather patterns on crop and livestock production and the consequences for food security?

At the recent Agriculture and Rural Development Day, held alongside the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Cancún, Mexico, some 500 policymakers, farmers, scientists and development experts gathered to identify climate change solutions in agriculture and move this key sector to the forefront of international climate debate. New Agriculturist presents a selection of their views on agriculture in a changing climate and what steps need to be taken to adapt to and mitigate the effects of global warming.

Life in a warmer world

Current average temperatures in Africa are leading to disastrous consequences: extreme dryness and expansion of desert areas in most of the region, but also excessive flooding in some parts of the continent.This is without a further two degrees increase. So the current situation in Africa is already unsustainable and I think it is very difficult to contemplate a situation where these impacts are exacerbated.
Ewa Elen, director, International Centre for Energy, Environment and Development (ICEED), Abuja, Nigeria

Extreme weather patterns are impacting crop and livestock production (© David Gough/IRIN)
Extreme weather patterns are impacting crop and livestock production
© David Gough/IRIN

It scares me, it really does, and I think for rural families in Kenya it's going to have a big impact. They are predicting we'll have prolonged droughts, unpredictable rainfall, heavy rainfalls. This is going to affect agricultural production and food security. So it's a scary world for our children.
Rosalind Reeve, Global Witness, Kenya

There are significant areas within Africa that are expected to be well beyond two degrees. Some places in Africa may warm by three, four, or five degrees on average. So it's a very concerning issue, whether people believe the science or not.
Stephen Leonard, Global Witness, Australia

A two degree plus world is a very scary world for us because it means a total shift in the livelihoods systems of our countries. In Uganda, for example, it will no longer be possible to grow coffee in the Lake Victoria region. It will be a complete distortion of the livelihoods systems in the places where we come from.
Pauline Kalunda, executive director, Ecotrust, Uganda

Changing the farming system

Some plants can grow in extreme desert conditions (© Phuong Tran/IRIN)
Some plants can grow in extreme desert conditions
© Phuong Tran/IRIN

African countries need to take a step back to restructure the agricultural economy. If we continue to depend on past rainfall patterns, food security will be compromised. We need a longer term programme to be able to move increasingly from rainfed agriculture to more irrigated and mechanised agriculture so that more of our food security is guaranteed.
Ewa Elen, ICEED

If we practise organic farming and we avoid using these chemical fertilisers I think that's going to help because chemical fertilisers also emit a lot of carbon and nitrous oxides in the air. So I believe organic farming is very important. If we practise it, it will not only enrich the soil for farmers to get more yield but it also help to minimise impacts of climate change.
Momadou Aba, Ministry of Lands, Country Planning & the Environment, Sierra Leone

Farmers need to begin diversifying away from those crops that are really seasonal. They also need to improve on the way they are managing their land. People who stay on the slopes, they need to begin planting trees to reduce the erosion during heavy rains and increase the retention of the moisture in the soil, so that they can have longer periods when its feasible to grow crops.
Pauline Kalunda, Ecotrust

Sharing information on adaptation

Private sector networks offer crucial links between farmers and the technologies they need - these networks can help diffuse and adapt technologies to improve food security and address climate change. Innovation across sectors will be crucial to mitigation and adaptation and we need to ensure the mechanisms are put in place.
Isabelle Coche, CropLife International

It's important that farmers are provided with information on adaptation (© FAO/Desmond Kwande)
It's important that farmers are provided with information on adaptation
© FAO/Desmond Kwande

We can begin to help African farmers by providing early warning systems. It's important that farmers are supported to understand the changes in rainfall patterns for example. Many farmers do not understand that rainfall no longer follows traditional patterns, so there are late onsets, or they are heavier than they used to be. So, climatic information is very important.
Ewa Elen

As a farmer, I could have more precipitation, I could have less. I will have more heat, which could be good, but if it's more heat with less water that's not good. The issue of adaptation means I need all the education and resources available for me to make sure I am making the best decision.
Don McCabe, Soil Conservation Council of Canada

Farmers in Brazil are getting together to exchange information from different regions, especially from those who are already suffering with droughts and extreme weather effects. By exchanging information they are trying to cope and adapt to the new situation of climate change and increasing temperature.
Marcio Pontual, Oxfam International, Brazil

Funding adaptation

I think that financial and technical support should be provided to the farmers. We should have a national plan for adaptation. We then need to have exact technical details at the local level about the impacts, in order to shape the proper adaptation methods at the local level.
Prof Xu Yinglong, China Academy of Agricultural Sciences

Farmers need support to adapt to the impacts of rising temperatures and failing rains (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
Farmers need support to adapt to the impacts of rising temperatures and failing rains
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

We now have an adaptation fund under the climate change convention. I would say we need to ensure that enough money is put into that fund. Then the way in which it operates must ensure that the money gets down, doesn't stop at government level, that it gets down to the farmers, it gets down to the people at local level and that it provides incentives to change practices to ensure that they can adapt in a drought situation.
Rosalind Reeve, Kenya

Africa will be able to obtain support to initiate projects to assist with adaptation, but until these funds are set up and people are aware of the level of finance that is to be provided it's difficult to know how to prepare. I think that the question around finance will hopefully be resolved over the next 12 months with some sort of an outcome in South Africa in December 2011.
Stephen Leonard, Australia

A lower carbon future?

I believe that a low carbon strategy for agriculture is possible, enhancing food production, reducing energy use, reducing the cost of energy and also reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in agriculture. There are new technologies out there that serve the dual purpose of reducing cost and energy use in addition to reducing emissions.
Ewa Elen

Is there a trade off between food security and reducing carbon emissions? (© FAO/Desmond Kwande)
Is there a trade off between food security and reducing carbon emissions?
© FAO/Desmond Kwande

Improved agricultural productivity is key to helping farmers meet growing global food demand while minimising their carbon emissions. The good news is that science is already helping farmers to do more with less, and we can intensify that effort to help reduce agriculture's carbon emissions.
Howard Minigh, president and CEO of CropLife International

As a farmer, improving my yields brings food security because we'll have more food for people to eat and it also means having more energy, more fibre, more fuel. At the same time, if I improve my yields I'm putting more carbon back in the ground. We need to help mother nature, mother earth, to work more with us to go ahead faster.
Don McCabe, Canada

What next?

Solutions to climate change and food security need to be tailored to local conditions and local needs. Public-private partnerships between research organizations, governments and industry are important collaborations to help adapt agricultural technologies to the unique climate situations faced around the world.
Morgane Danielou, director of communications, International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA)

Sustainable solutions are required to enable small farmers worldwide to  adapt to the challenge of climate change (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
Sustainable solutions are required to enable small farmers worldwide to adapt to the challenge of climate change
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

If we all work together, meeting this challenge might not be a dream. It really is an enormous challenge, especially for Africa, but working collectively is the key to this. We've got to look for the solutions and scale up the projects that work and always have at the back of your mind biodiversity, people's rights and governance.
Rosalind Reeve

Different sectors need to plan together, the people from forestry, from agriculture, from infrastructure etc. Because agriculture is a system which depends on the environmental services, depends on the survival of the forest. But if the agriculture sector does not understand the natural systems that actually sustain agriculture, then they don't include that in their planning.
Pauline Kalunda

Unless action is taken now to help farmers respond, the impacts of climate change could derail Africa's revitalised efforts to transform the agricultural sector and could deflate the optimism this has created in achieving a uniquely African 'Green and Rainbow' Revolution.
Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, chief executive office, Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN)

With contributions from: Winnie Onyimbo and Michael Hoevel

Date published: January 2011

 

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