* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
From 'smart tractors' to better land rights, farmers need different ways to adapt
Lindsay C. Stringer is a professor of environment and development at the Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds.
The effects of climate change are already being felt across the agricultural sector. Drought has left India’s farmlands crippled. Prolonged flooding has left many U.S. farmers in the Midwest unable to plant their crops. Elsewhere, cyclones in the spring decimated Mozambique’s fields and left millions without food.
Such extreme weather events only look set to worsen under climate change, requiring farmers to adopt new ways of doing their jobs, as new research by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) shows.
Luckily, the agricultural world is already on the cusp of a new revolution, with digital innovations and new farming techniques offering the potential to transform the sector entirely.
However, for some, the sheer scale of change required may be too much. It may be that their only solution is to exit agriculture entirely.
Either way, farmers will need increased levels of support, specific to their needs, if they are to cope, or even thrive, while keeping food on the plates of a hungry, growing population.
So, what might the future hold for farmers? Let’s take a look.
The vast majority of farms are run by smallholders on less than two hectares of land. Given their size, these farmers’ primary goal is often subsistence for them and their families.
Buying or renting more land could provide additional support and allow them to grow enough food to sell but is often either too expensive or difficult if land rights are not clear where they live.
New techniques such as vertical farming, whereby crops are grown in stacked layers to conserve space, could help them grow more on their existing plots. Vertical farms turn small areas of land into highly productive spaces, using minimal water and clean energy, and so are environmentally friendly. This approach has already been trialled successfully in refugee camps in Syria.
Meanwhile, conventional, large-scale farmers, such as the majority of North American farmers, will need to adapt by reducing their carbon footprints while maintaining, or even improving, productivity.
New technologies such as “smart tractors” are doing this already, improving planting accuracy and optimising the application of fertilisers.
Introducing taxes on the emissions produced from farming, a so-called carbon tax, could also provide a disincentive for farmers to address this proactively themselves.
Traditional "extensive" farmers have large areas of land but use little in the way of inputs such as fertilizer, and significantly less labour. They tend to be less productive but also less environmentally damaging. An example would be farmers who let their animals graze freely on fields that are dotted with trees.
Compared to smallholders, these farmers have more resources but are still hampered by labour shortages. Working together more would enable them to generate higher returns by pooling land, sharing knowledge and cooperating on infrastructural investments.
In Romania, owners of fragmented plots united their land and won vital funding from the World Bank, initially only available to larger landowners. This allowed them to invest in much-needed trees and helped restore the health of their soil.
Artisanal farmers tend to grow higher-value crops with a more explicit environmental focus, so stand to benefit from shifting consumer attitudes towards healthier or sustainable foods, which command premium prices.
Alternative sources of protein are already starting to disrupt traditional livestock farming. For example, insects provide a viable alternative to meat, offering similar levels of protein, while needing a fraction of the resources to produce. High-end restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen are already offering insects as part of their menus.
Every farmer’s situation is unique, but collectively they face an unprecedented challenge, nothing short of a global agricultural transformation. Food production must continue to increase to feed a growing population, all while reducing agricultural-related emissions dramatically.
Innovations and new approaches to farming offer many farmers the potential to adapt to these conditions, but only if consumer and government support help them to drive meaningful change at scale.