Guest Article #49

Smallholders, Climate Resilience, and Sustainable Agriculture

Feeding a global population of just over nine billion in 2050 will put even greater pressure on our planet's scarce natural resources, and the challenges will be multiplied by climate risk and uncertainty. If we are to succeed, the world's 500 million smallholder farms will need to play an even greater role in contributing to global food supply and distribution. Already two billion people rely directly on them, and a lot more could. For that to happen, we must acknowledge – and act on the fact - that smallholder farmers are key agents not only of economic growth and food security, but also of better management and preservation of the environment.

Opportunities and risks are multiplying fast. Globalization and international competition have opened up markets to developing countries, but markets and agri-food chains are often difficult to access for smallholders. The natural resources that poor rural populations depend on continue being degraded and yields in the poorest areas continue to stagnate or deteriorate. As much as 5-10 million hectares of agricultural land are lost each year to severe degradation[1] through over-use and poor land management which results in depletion of soil nutrients. This not only has a direct negative impact on agricultural productivity, making farming a more risky economic activity, it also leaves the land more vulnerable to extreme weather patterns, and depletes its potential to provide fresh water, air and soil.

Climate change multiplies all of these risks. As temperatures increase, farming systems will have to change, in some cases radically. Poor rural people everywhere will be affected, with women, indigenous groups and youth likely to face particular threats.

So how can we respond? The Green Revolution has marginalized many smallholder farmers, who did not have access to the necessary inputs. Moreover, it was in many instances not environmentally sustainable because of the extensive use of inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation to push yields up. There are many areas where croplands were overexploited and water tables depleted, and the replacement of traditional varieties with new high yield varieties eroded biodiversity.

But there are alternatives. Over the past two decades, IFAD and others have piloted and in many cases scaled up low-input, ecosystem-based production practices. Examples include integrated pest management, conservation and zero-tillage production systems and other sustainable land management approaches.

These approaches are taking off around the world. Brazil now produces 50% of its grain through zero-till, which abandons ploughing altogether by harvesting the crop high on the stalk, allowing the remains to rot and enrich the soil, and sees the next crop planted directly into the mat of organic material. To give a project example, an IFAD-supported farmer exchange between Niger and Burkina Faso has revived traditional planting techniques on semi-arid land degraded through successive droughts. This involved improved rainwater harvesting, the use of organic farm waste materials and a bit of ecosystem-based support from termites that eat and digest the waste, making it easier for the plant roots to absorb the nutrients. Local communities witnessed such dramatic yield improvements that the number of hectares planted with this method went from 4 to over 4,000 in just a few years. The number continues to rise, improving livelihoods and increasing the climate resilience of these communities.

Such new approaches centre around maintaining ground cover and minimizing soil disturbance to preserve its structure, and both rely on and support an array of ecosystem services. The driver for these approaches is sustainable poverty reduction and development. While smallholders and their communities account for only a tiny fraction of global emissions, it is worth noting that these “multifunctional” approaches tend to be low-emission. Through an integrated approach based on traditional development aid, the Global Environment Facility, new climate finance and in thoughtful collaboration with the private sector, we can achieve long term poverty reduction objectives and simultaneously build environmental benefits, climate resilience and low carbon growth pathways.

Where incentives are not strong enough for farmers to adopt these practices we must redouble our efforts. There is significant “untapped” potential for smallholders to benefit from mitigation and other innovative financing, where additional gains, including climate resilience, can be harvested for the poorest. There are opportunities for smallholders to bolster environmental services such as a reliable high-quality water supply and biodiversity through payments for environmental services (PES) in upland watersheds and protected areas. And we need to increase smallholders' access to eco-friendly value chains by overcoming barriers such as costly certification.

Our challenge is shifting attitudes from perceiving agriculture as a short term “extractive” activity to correctly understanding it as a long-term inter-relationship with the Earth's natural systems. Climate change brings a renewed imperative plus practical opportunities to achieve this shift.


[1] World Bank (2008)