Beware, these days, temperatures, rains and humidity are unpredictable… One year they start in November, another year in December, and then we have dry spells at the critical stages of crop growth…”
All over the world, the observations of farmers confirm the scientific evidence which shows that climate change is a fact, occurring at an alarming rate. The latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) quote a 0.76° C increase in the world’s average temperature in the last century, expecting temperatures to rise by 2° C by 2050. This is leading to rising sea levels, the disappearance of glaciers, and to drastic changes in rainfall patterns, affecting the production potential of rural areas.
Most rural areas have always experienced climate variability, and farmers have always had to cope with a degree of uncertainty in relation to the local weather. Detailed observations reveal that many of the effects attributed to climate change are in fact the result of deforestation or soil erosion, or take place because more people live in disaster-prone areas. But there is no doubt that farmers are facing a changing context, with rainfall and temperature patterns moving outside the regular variability ranges. This is already having a very strong impact.
How do our leaders and farmers perceive and deal with these changes? Are we prepared? What are the advantages of sustainable agriculture practices? And what is needed in terms of communications or global political decisions?
While climate change is a global phenomenon, those living in rural areas in the tropics face greater risks. Their vulnerability depends on intrinsic factors such as the local topography or geology. But many other factors are involved, the combination of which determines a family’s capacity to cope with stress and drastic changes. This can result in differences in vulnerability within a community, and even within one household. The knowledge a farmer has of climate issues, or how regularly and easily she can get information, such as weather forecasts, plays an important role.
Equally important is the degree of control a farmer has over resources such as water or land and the possibilities this brings. Similarly, local “safety nets” (e.g. family members, local organisations, networks, institutional support, etc.) can provide help in case of need. Perhaps the most important factor in terms of vulnerability is the fact that, in many areas in the tropics and subtropics, agro-ecosystems have dramatically deteriorated in recent decades.
This is mainly due to changes in land use patterns: intensified agriculture, coupled with deforestation, soil degradation and erosion. It is to be expected that climate change will further accelerate the ongoing degradation processes, in many cases leading to a complete collapse. Systems with greater diversity, or which successfully integrate livestock, are often less vulnerable to sudden changes, and show higher levels of resilience. Sustainable agriculture practices which help soils retain higher quantities of water, for example, help withstand periods of drought.
Throughout history, farmers have always had to cope with the environment that surrounds them, gradually adapting to it. In the process they have developed specific farming systems which perform best in their given situation. Most small-scale farmers have to deal with insufficient resources, and many are trying to grow crops in soils which are less fertile, or deal with recurrent pests and diseases. In many situations, farmers have to cope with policies which directly influence their production potential and resulting income (for example, policies which promote imports that bring the price of their products down). The speed in which the climate is changing and the resulting situations, whether a temporary dry period or a hurricane, only adds to the list of challenges and to the sense of urgency.
The magnitude of the problem, however, requires more than just a reactive response to change. Farmers need to be able to cope with a sudden flood, but it is better if they are prepared for it. Adaptation to climate change refers to a proactive approach: preparing in advance for what might come. It is not surprising that organisations like FAO, in the framework document prepared by their Interdepartmental Working Group on Climate Change, recommend many of the practices presented throughout the years in this magazine, as part of a continuous attempt to build resilience.
Adaptation requires technological efforts, both large scale (such as building river barriers to protect farms from floods) and at a farm level (such as irrigation facilities which make production less dependent on the rain). Adaptation can also refer to adopting “new” farming practices, such as vermicomposting, to improve soil organic matter content, which is basic yet essential in coping and adapting to climate change. Management skills are needed when opting for associated crops, mulching, or the different practices complementing traditional practices with “new” ideas.
In addition, considering that most of these will not show results immediately, a long term planning process is necessary. Changes in producers’ behaviour may also be necessary – as shown by those farmers in Nicaragua who now grow –and eat– sorghum instead of their traditional staple crop, maize . Consumers will also need encouragement to change their behaviour (as awareness of our own “environmental footprint” grows).
Knowledge and information play a vital role in the process of building resilience. All processes need to build on local coping mechanisms, local innovations and local practices, in ways which enhance local capacities. Efficiency of such mechanisms is only increased with additional information such as weather forecasts. Fortunately, this is increasingly being recognised through “learning centres”, and Climate Field Schools
Deforestation and soil erosion result in considerable quantities of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, a total complemented by the production and use of fertilizers. The IPCC documents conclude that agriculture accounts for at least one quarter of all of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. There is now widespread evidence showing how farmers can help reduce these emissions by reducing the use of chemical fertilizers, minimising the use of fossil fuels, incorporating nitrogen into the soil, avoiding the loss of organic matter, and improving the use of manure . At the same time, farmers can help sequester carbon by restoring the natural vegetation where this is possible, avoiding deforestation, and efficiently managing their soils. As reported by the IPCC, Greenpeace and FAO, there is a large mitigation potential in agriculture, directly related to the implementation of sustainable agriculture practices.
Other reports, like the recently released International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (IAASTD), show the need to change the way agriculture is understood and practised, and acknowledge the advantages of sustainable agriculture. Further efforts are needed so that the international community acknowledges the contribution of small-scale farmers. This recognition can come as part of what is now known as Payments for Ecological Services, or as part of the carbon trade mechanisms which are slowly becoming more common .
A global phenomenon One of the major characteristics of climate change is the nonlinear relationships it shows. Local emissions, in one part of the world, have global consequences, while avoiding deforestation in one area will not help stabilise that area’s weather. At the same time, the impact of the many different farming practices (both positive and negative) may not be visible immediately. The articles in this issue show that, even if small and localised, the steps taken by small-scale farmers count, and are very important, both in terms of reducing the contribution of agriculture to climate change and in helping farms prepare for future changes. Most important is that all these efforts have many additional advantages, reflecting a truly win-win situation.
Reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, increasing a farm’s resilience and preparing for a future scenario, goes together with increasing (and more sustainable) yields, a more diverse production, healthier products, and higher incomes.
The current state of these larger realities must also be faced. The dominant trends in agriculture and the global economy are going entirely against the principles that underlie sustainable agriculture. In this larger context, sustainable small-scale family farming is a small, increasingly threatened “oasis of diversity” in a huge ecological desert. It will continue to suffer the negative economic and ecological consequences of the larger world around it, while it contributes more than its share in terms of rendering ecosystems services.
But there is change in the air. At a time of food, fuel and financial crises, a new debate is emerging across the world about the future of agriculture. What type of agriculture do we need? Do we need more and more monocropping systems, with higher yields and profits? Such systems may sound rational from a macro-economic point of view, but they exclude millions of small producers and have little to offer when it comes to facing the challenges of climate change. Or do we need to foster an agriculture that is inclusive, multifunctional, and built on principles of resilience that are crucial in the process of adapting to climate change? Can there be a balance between these two types of agriculture? I leave you with this question and hope that you will find inspiration to deal with climate change, in your own, diverse ways.