The business of survival: Small farms and climate change

by Kanayo Nwanze | IFAD
Friday, 14 October 2016 18:15 GMT

In this 2013 file photo, a farmer harvests wheat on a field in the El-Menoufia governorate, north of Cairo. REUTERS/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.

Agriculture is the sector most vulnerable to climate change, especially the world’s 500 million small farms

World Food Day this year focuses on the impacts of climate change on food systems - a timely reminder that we need to change those systems if we are to sustainably feed a growing global population. With the next United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP) coming up in Morocco in November, we need to remember that agriculture is the sector most vulnerable to climate change, and particularly the world’s 500 million small farms. Action to increase the resilience of smallholder farmers is essential to maintaining a sustainable food supply and eliminating poverty and hunger.

The numbers present a stark picture: it is estimated that food production will need to increase by 60 percent by 2050 to feed the global population, but also that yields of some crops could decline by up to 25 percent due to the effects of climate change. This is a problem crying out for a solution.

And it can be solved. There is growing recognition that investments in smallholder farmers’ capacity and adaptability bring multiple benefits, from greater food security to reduction of agriculture’s role in climate change itself through mitigation measures.  Small farms are businesses, and need what other businesses need - inputs, finance, access to markets, information, technology and an enabling environment that helps them to thrive. With climate change bringing higher temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, stronger storms and rising sea levels, smallholder farmers urgently need to become a priority of the development community.

Poor rural people in developing countries are among those hardest hit by the effects of climate change, but most often lack the resources and resilience to adapt. Agriculture is still the mainstay of the economy in these rural areas, which are also home to three quarters of the world’s poorest and hungriest people.  If these people can no longer produce enough food to earn an income or to feed their families, they will migrate to already crowded cities or beyond, with impacts that are economic, social and political.

The conclusion could not be more obvious: smallholder farmers are at the intersection of the most pressing global development issues. If we want to eliminate hunger and poverty and tackle climate change, we need to help increase their adaptive capacity.

For four decades, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has been investing in rural people to help them grow more food and improve their livelihoods. Since 1978, we have provided US$18 billion in grants and low-interest loans to projects that have reached about 462 million people. Some $583 million has been dedicated to climate risk management. IFAD is the only organization of its kind, an international financial institution and a specialized United Nations agency. IFAD has also established the biggest adaptation programme for smallholder farmers, known as ASAP, which has proven that adaptation action is not only possible but also yields benefits for food security and mitigation.

Greater support for agricultural research is also necessary. Among the projects we support are the development of new crop varieties tolerant to drought, flood and salinity, and new cultivation methods that help control erosion, preserve soil fertility, reduce deforestation and capture carbon.

Transforming food systems to be resilient and sustainable requires more than this, however, because changing the way we grow, process and consume food involves all of us. You could say it involves producers, consumers, and all value chain actors. Or put more plainly, it depends on what we grow, what we buy, what we sell, what we eat and what we throw away. Food is how we live - all of us. And while nearly 800 million people still go to bed hungry every night, globally a third of food is lost or wasted. This tragedy is even more grotesque given that food loss and waste generate almost as much greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) as road transport.

Agriculture has often been seen as part of the climate change problem, rather than a solution. In reality it is both: while agriculture accounts for a quarter of GHG emissions, it also has  the potential to offset a much bigger amount. Investments in adaptive and resilient smallholder agriculture will reduce vulnerability, increase production and avoid GHG emissions - a triple win, not just for rural smallholders and their communities, but for the urban centres that also depend on them for their food.

Ensuring a sustainable food supply will be impossible if we do not first support smallholder agriculture. An investment in smallholders’ ability to adapt to climate change is an investment in a sustainable future and a world free of poverty and hunger.

Kanayo Nwanze is president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and winner of the 2016 Africa Food Prize.