Small farmers hold the key to tackling climate change

Thursday, 25 April 2013 20:40 GMT

A farmer holds out wheat grains during harvest in El-Menoufia governorate, 10 km north of Cairo, Apr. 23, 2013. EUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

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

Food producers are finally being heard in climate policy discussions

As a lifelong scientist I have attended climate change meetings for over 30 years. Our aim was to convince scientists and policymakers to take climate change seriously. The message was: ‘Take action now, to leave a better world for your grandchildren.’

In the past, many of my colleagues working in development were not convinced - poor and hungry people cannot afford to worry about climate change. Such was the conventional wisdom.

The conference on “Hunger-Nutrition-Climate Justice” that I attended in Dublin this month has shown a hugely significant development. Finally, grassroots activists, smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fishermen are being given a voice and placed at the centre of climate change discussions.

Participants from 60 countries, many from Africa and Asia, were not discussing some vague threat in the distant future, but the serious challenges of managing risks to their livelihoods from extreme weather events, droughts, floods and hurricanes happening today. Evidently, climate change has caught up with us.

I was inspired by the discussions in Dublin, where participants shared their experiences of employing successful strategies to increase their capacity to adapt to climate change.

We heard about farmers in Senegal working with extension officers and the meteorological service on seasonal weather forecasts that are directly useful to them. We learned about farmers in Ethiopia engaging in the development of drought-insurance schemes, and farmers in Malawi adopting new varieties of orange-fleshed, drought-resistant sweet potato to help overcome vitamin A deficiency in infants.

Today, at least 870 million people go to bed hungry. A quarter of the world’s children under five years of age are stunted by chronic malnourishment and will never reach their full potential. President Higgins of Ireland called it, “…the greatest ethical failure of our world.”

Climate change is exacerbating the hunger and malnutrition challenge - undermining the progress we desperately need for a food-secure future. And it’s hitting those that contributed least to greenhouse gas emissions the hardest - the smallholder farmers in developing countries who possess the least capacity to adapt. Ending hunger and malnutrition can only happen if we address climate change at the same time.


Agriculture not only multiplies risk for smallholder farmers. Food production and consumption also emits as much as 30 percent of all greenhouse gases. But in its evolution also lies the potential for fighting climate change. 

We need to develop more innovative climate-smart agricultural solutions. We require investments in research that produces innovations for our food systems – systems that will need to be both resilient to climatic changes and have low carbon emissions.

And agricultural research also needs to do so much more than issue academic publications; we are entering a new phase of partnering with those in the field to put scientific innovation into real-life contexts. 

The good news from Dublin was that we have a fair idea of what we have to do: Let the smallholder farmers, women in particular, tell scientists and policymakers about their needs and then empower those farmers with tools and policies to deal with climate risk in their own way.

Give a prominent role to local knowledge and combine it with cutting-edge science to fashion local innovations. Improve crop varieties that are productive, nutritious and resilient. Change the way pastures are used and the mix of livestock breeds. Manage landscapes, soils and forests to reduce emissions and conserve biodiversity. And finally, hold governments accountable to deliver on their commitments.

While this may be easy to say, we all know it is the hardest part to implement. It requires governments, the private sector, researchers, and producers working together in joined-up approaches. It requires close collaboration to ensure that agriculture and climate change adaptation issues are properly addressed in the creation of post-2015 development goals. 

It will require investments, even in tough times. The Irish government, hosting this summit as a key part of its EU Presidency, is an example for all. It will maintain its development commitment despite the domestic financial crisis – and it will allocate over 20 percent of its development budget to end hunger and malnutrition.

The Irish hosts, recalling their own history of famine, were calling on the world to address climate justice. They were giving a voice to the voiceless and putting their money where their mouth is.

While these challenges are far from insignificant, they are not insurmountable. In the words of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who addressed the conference, “If we were to walk off that climate cliff, what does that say about our generation?”

Frank Rijsberman is CEO of the CGIAR Consortium, whose Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) co-organised the Hunger-Nutrition-Climate Justice Conference in Dublin earlier this month.