Act now for farmers’ futures

A former coffee farmer who has switched to production of plantain due to the effects of climate change in Colombia. Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT).

This article by CCAFS director Bruce Campbell was originally posted on The Broker’s blog A new agriculture for food security

As climate change impacts unfold, compounding the many challenges already faced by smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fishers in the developing world, a new challenge emerges for science and policy: finding the right balance between food security, reducing emissions, and ensuring environmental and economic sustainability.

We need better knowledge on these tradeoffs. Priority should be given to identifying sustainable low-carbon options for agricultural development that ensure food security and livelihoods. Synergies between these multiple outcomes are possible – for example, conservation of coastal mangrove forests captures carbon and also buffers against coastal, erosion, storm-surges and the impacts of sea-level rise. Mangroves also enhance fisheries production and support diverse coastal livelihoods. By finding technical and institutional options for mitigation that support livelihoods and food security, we can create benefits for farmers, food systems and the environment.

We also need greater clarity on where investments will have the greatest impact. Current approaches to managing climate risks – such as mobile pastoralism, community food storage facilities, climate information services, and index-based insurance products –provide a strong starting point for helping women and men in small-scale farming and food industries prepare for increasing variability in the weather. Our challenge is to improve people’s access to established and emerging risk-management solutions.

Even a 2 degree rise will destabilize current farming systems, necessitating major changes. Researchers are already finding adaptation approaches at multiple levels, from adjusting a particular agricultural practice such as the time of planting, to changing crop varieties, switching to new crops, or moving out of crop farming altogether. However, these changes can be difficult, and the challenge is how to enable them without further stressing peoples’ livelihoods. Time is of essence: farmers and agencies involved in food systems must stay ahead of the unprecedented changes that will occur in the coming decades. By adopting an approach of ‘accelerated adaptation’, we can help farming and food systems be ready in advance.

New challenges call for new ways of working. Agricultural science, and research on livelihoods, social institutions and food security, must be better integrated with climate science. We also need to bring the knowledge and perspectives of farmers together with decision-makers at other levels. It is crucial that research in agriculture, food security and climate change continues to improve and deliver, to allow more confident decision-making and allocation of limited resources towards uncertain climatic futures.