Guest Article #100

Harnessing Diversity by Connecting People is the Key to Climate Adaptation in Agriculture

Climate change is affecting agriculture already in a measurable degree and has serious consequences for global food security and poverty. The roughly 300 million poor people who directly depend on rainfed agriculture for their livelihood are especially vulnerable to climate change. Bioversity International develops new knowledge to face this problem.

Global challenges invite global solutions. But if we have learned anything from the global negotiations on climate change, it is that global solutions need to be firmly rooted in national and local perspectives. The strong focus on global regulatory solutions has now fanned out into a richer, more diverse debate about trade, a myriad of technological innovations, and the role of local regulation.

Similarly, for climate change adaptation, we urgently need to reappraise the value of diversity. Single-solution approaches are unlikely to work. This is especially true for agriculture. The highly diverse agricultural systems and crops that have evolved since prehistoric times strongly benefit agriculture today. The world's farming cultures have each engineered different creative solutions to the problems they encountered. It is by drawing on this global reserve of farming knowledge, cultural landscapes and biological diversity that farmers have shaped over millennia, that we can generate new solutions to face climate change into the future. Climate change urges us to accelerate innovation to mine this reserve of potential solutions. This is what scientists at Bioversity International focus on.

One example of how Bioversity scientists contribute to accelerating the search for diverse solutions is the work on crop genetic diversity. Many different traditional and modern varieties exist for the main food crops. But these varieties are not always available to farmers where they are most needed. If varieties shift their area of adaptation due to recent climate change, seed producers need to respond to this. In Bihar, India, we discovered that many excellent wheat varieties from other places were suitable under local conditions, but had never been tested there. Quick gains can be achieved by matching varieties to the environments where they produce best. In a range of projects called “Seeds for Needs”, we are training organizations to identify the right varieties using geographical information systems. Bioversity is also developing new ways to have farmers massively try out new varieties in a cost-efficient way. Climate adaptation is a moving target. The system we have developed prepares farmers, seed producers, and agricultural scientists to deal with any future changes. They gain the capacity to constantly repeat the process and keep identifying new suitable varieties while climate conditions shift. And by doing so, they directly gain in agricultural productivity.

To adapt to future climates, farmers may eventually need to shift to new crops, better adapted to the climate. Also, some traditional crops are very hardy. Many of them are at risk of being lost, right now when they are most needed. Farmers in South India grow several species of millet, which are very drought resistant. But milling is done by hand. As women got more economic opportunities, they no longer had time to do this work, so farmers stopped using the better adapted millets and grew more risky crops instead. It was by introducing electric-powered mills for the millet grain that Bioversity scientists were able to reduce women´s labour. By improving production techniques and market the millets as high-value products, farmers generate extra income.

Bioversity's approach is unique in its emphasis on the need to foster strong networks that connect high-level science work with traditional knowledge and the reality on the ground. These scientific networks include many agricultural scientists who work for government programmes or universities in poor countries. With often scarce resources, they do very important work. These networks also extend to expert farmers, who test new technologies and actively participate in agricultural research. We strongly believe that by connecting people from diverse backgrounds, providing tools to communicate their needs and insights, that we unleash the creativity and mobilize the diversity that is needed to tackle the challenges of climate change.