African smallholder farmers responding to an uncertain climate future

by Dr Katrin Glatzel and Alice Marks, Agriculture for Impact

Farmers in Tanzania. Credit :Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Farmers in Tanzania. Credit :Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

With just a couple of months left till the world’s leaders gather in Paris to agree on a new international climate change agreement, the Montpellier Panel launched a report last week addressing some of the key challenges we face in helping smallholder farmers become more resilient in the face of climate change. “The Farms of Change: African Smallholders Responding to an Uncertain Climate Future” also argues that smallholders can be the drivers for steering Africa towards low-carbon development pathways – provided they are given the right support and incentives to do so.

As we all know, two of the greatest challenges of the 21st century are the increasing demands for food, water and energy from a growing population – and climate change. Agriculture and smallholder farmers are central to both, perhaps nowhere more so than in Africa. And while Africa is already battling against the impacts of climate change, smallholders and their families are amongst the most vulnerable with the least capacity to adapt. Rising temperatures signal more extreme weather events that will put the lives and livelihoods of millions of farmers at greater risk, increasing their vulnerability to drought, famine and disease. Whilst progress has been made during the last two decades to reduce hunger and to improve farmers’ livelihoods, climate change jeopardises these gains.

High levels of poverty and underdevelopment, combined with insufficient infrastructure, exacerbate the already severe impacts of global warming on resources, development and human security. In order to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, international organisations and governments must provide smallholders with the right support and with the incentives to reduce and offset greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Whilst agriculture is commonly seen as part of the problem, it is an even larger part to the solution.

The Scale of the Challenge

Irrigation system
Irrigation built by community in Ethiopia. Credit Kelly Ramundo, USAID

According to IPCC estimates, 14% of global GHG emissions come from agriculture. In addition, land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sectors contributes an estimated 17%. Emissions of nitrous oxide (N₂O) and methane (CH₄), which originate from livestock and soil, are nearly 300 and 35 times more potent than CO₂, respectively, when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere. Furthermore, emissions from agriculture look set to increase by around 1% per year, which will not be compatible with a stable climate future.

However, there are agricultural technologies and processes that could help to address this challenge, if applied on sufficient scale. Examples include irrigation, improved land management practices, and various forms of soil carbon sequestration, which if implemented continent-wide could increase agricultural output and thus both resilience and food security. Soil carbon sequestration has real potential – globally soil contains 1,500Gt of carbon, more than is stored in the atmosphere, plants, animals and microorganisms put together. Effective sequestration depends on various factors, including the technologies, climatic conditions, farming systems used and the associated practices of soil management. Whilst there are many successful small-scale projects, taking sequestration to a greater scale faces many challenges.

One such barrier, which is common across all implementation of climate change adaptation and mitigation projects in Africa, is insufficient finance. Between 2010 and 2050, the annual cost for adaptation to climate change in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) will be at least US$18 billion and up to US$50 billion for the entire continent. Yet the level of financing currently reaching African countries is paltry. Of the US$34 billion pledged through various climate funds, SSA received just US$2.3 billion between 2003 and 2013. This funding gap should be met through public and private resources, but allowing local governments to allocate funds according to need.

Agents of change and opportunities

Soil water conservation in Niger. Credit Fatoumata Diabate, Oxfam
Soil water conservation in Niger. Credit Fatoumata Diabate, Oxfam

Smallholder farmers can be agents of change. However, they need to be given the right incentives – such as payment for ecosystem services and more secure land rights – to drive sustainable agricultural development that builds resilience and reduces GHG emissions. Across Africa, climate change could spur countries to invest in renewable energy technologies, create new markets for agricultural producers, and build human and institutional capacities to support a knowledge economy based on innovation, research and development. To do this requires enabling policies and incentives for smallholder farmers to invest in environmental services, preserve biodiversity, sustainably manage natural resources such as land and water, and to use energy efficiently.

The Montpellier Panel report also advocates for the wide adoption of Sustainable Intensification that seeks to produce more food whilst ensuring the natural resource base on which agriculture depends is sustained. This can include, for example, nitrogen-fixing crops that improve soil quality or the introduction of drought-tolerant maize varieties.

The report sets out ten priorities for donor and government action, including better financing for sustainable farming systems, investment in weather modelling, increasing investments in research and local capacities, scaling-up proven community-based adaptation projects and more research to understand the needs and ambitions of smallholder farmers. To keep global temperature rise below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, international organisations and governments must help smallholders to reduce and offset GHG emissions, and a major part of that must be though climate finance mechanisms designed so that African governments can better access funding that significantly benefits smallholder farmers.

Action has to be taken now. The climate talks in Paris in December present an opportune moment to put the world on the right trajectory to achieve the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) goal of limiting average global temperature rise to 2°C. This will require strong political leadership, functioning markets and regulatory instruments. It will be hard to achieve without leveraging the potential of the agriculture sector, both in the developed and developing world. Unlocking Africa’s agriculture sector in a way that captures the synergies between adaptation and mitigation and identifies and reduces trade-offs cannot only contribute to preserving our planet for future generations, but also contribute to poverty reduction and economic growth today.

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