Why mixing it up on the farm is key for climate change adaptation

by Cecilia Schubert | CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)
Wednesday, 16 September 2015 07:51 GMT

Cross-bred goats that can withstand a hotter and dryer climate could be a key climate adaptive strategy for mixed-farmers. C. Schubert (CCAFS)

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We still know little about how climate change will impact the many farms that both grow crops and rear livestock

For millions of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and other parts of the developing world, deciding between growing crops and rearing animals has never been up for discussion. Instead farmers here mix it up, as keeping both livestock and crops on the farm provide milk for the family, meat and vegetables on the table and crops to sell on the market.

A recent perspective piece published in Nature Climate Change by researchers Philip Thornton and Mario Herrero suggests that we still know very little about how climate change will impact these mixed farms and especially the interactions between crops and livestock. This is alarming as mixed farming systems form the backbone of smallholder production in developing countries, producing over 90% of the world’s milk supply and 80% of the meat from ruminants.

It is clear to see how important these systems are to millions of people, contributing heavily to livelihoods and incomes, and even the globe’s food supply. Making sure mixed farmers know the way forward for effective climate adaptation and resilience building is crucial.

Available climate adaptation options

There are a number of climate-smart farming options that support climate adaptation, mitigation and improve food security that mixed farmers can pick up.

These options use the fact that there are both livestock and crops grown on the farm and how these can interplay to strengthen climate resilience.

A good example, and perhaps the most obvious one, is using manure as a fertilizer and nutritious crop residues as fodder. Making the most of these farm spillovers can help boost both yields and animal growth and in turn improve the household’s ability to deal with climate impacts. Focusing on high-quality fodder, for example specific legume species, can also help reduce methane emissions from livestock, adding some co-mitigation benefits.

Although mixed systems are already taking the lead in diversification, farmers can by adding additional crops or introducing new animals such as ducks or fish further increase incomes and sources of nutrition. By managing a range of farm- and income-generating activities, farmers have the potential to create a more food-secure household.  

Livestock can also provide a buffer against losses during drought or heavy rainfall. For example, selling a chicken or goat can help a family overcome a poor grain harvest. By re-investing the income in crops better suited for an altered climate or introducing cross-bred animals that can withstand a hotter and more dry climate, mixed farmers can get better equipped to keep climate impacts at bay.  

Supporting mixed farmers

For mixed farmers to successfully take on climate-smart agriculture, they need an enabling environment. An integrated, science-based approach that simultaneously addresses food security and climate change issues while strengthening relevant institutions is one way to support farmers. Here, focusing on building the capacity of local agricultural institutions to provide seeds, technologies and training on latest farm innovations is key.

Making sure information on new farm products and practices is available is also crucial, as it is difficult for farmers to know the full range of potential trade-offs, costs or benefits associated with the many different interventions. To support farmers as well as policy makers - as they are the ones steering the work - on which climate-smart interventions to choose, one approach is to directly engage with them through supportive partnerships.

In Nyando, Kenya, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) East Africa program is inviting government staff from both Kenya and neighboring countries to talk with climate-smart farmers. This way they can see with their own eyes which adaptive options work for mixed and other farmers in their region.

The program is also arranging farmer field days to their Climate-Smart Villages where farmers can talk directly with peers about which climate-smart farming techniques are easy and profitable to implement as well as a good fit for mixed-farm systems.

Seeing as many of the world’s farms still keep crops and livestock side by side, and will continue to do so for decades to come, we need to invest in more research to better understand what climate change will mean for mixed farming systems and how these farms can best adapt to climate change.

Through a better understanding and continued support for farmers to mix things up on the farm, millions of smallholders can start to build resilience against a changing and more variable climate.

Related reading:

Article:Adapting to climate change in the mixed crop and livestock farming systems in sub-Saharan Africa. By Philip Thornton and Mario Herrero. 2015 Nature Climate Change. 

Article:Climate change adaptation in mixed croplivestock systems in developing countries. by Philip Thornton and Mario Herrero. 2014 Global Food Journal.

Philip Thornton is a researcher with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and a Flagship Leader at CCAFS. Mario Herrero works at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).