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Creating climate change resilient agriculture, by Nickson Otieno

Nickson Otieno, Kenya (Global Environments Summer Academy 2011 partricipant)

In a world of climate change, agricultural production systems that rely heavily on rainfall are increasingly feeling the squeeze of rising unpredictability of onset, intensity and longevity of precipitation. This is more so in tropical areas where rainfall is typically expected in distinct seasonal patterns. Effects of reducing agricultural productivity is aggravated by the fact that economies of many such countries that already depend heavily on agriculture are challenged by low technological capacity needed to increase crop production efficiency to compensate for unreliable rainfall and feed ever-growing human populations. As a result, poverty levels are expected to rise among many developing countries within the economically marginal segments of their citizenry. Specifically, and according to the International Panel on Climate Change and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (2010), increased global warming is expected to herald increases in crop diseases; abundance and diversity of crop pests, with pests invading new croplands; and invasive alien species competing with crops.

A researcher collecting field data on a small-scale rural tea farm in east Africa, that practices organic farming incorporating agroforestry and maintenance of natural hedges and woodlots.

Though many large-scale farmers have the capacity to upscale productivity through adoption of technological methods that improve efficiency by intensification, most of them also operate within agro-economic spheres dictated by regional or global markets that experience frequent shifts of highs and lows. In periods of low market returns, such farmers are more likely to make complete switches to production of crops which may meet demands of far-away consumers (prepared to pay good prices), with only passively sensitivity to the real local food security needs. This means that the surest way to ensure sustainable agricultural food production for developing counties in a changing climate, is to empower small-scale farmers to cope and adapt to climate change impacts on their agrarian systems (Cole, 2010; FAO, 2010).

Several adaptive and safety-net strategies have been proposed towards alleviation of the expected climate change driven declines in welfare of low income communities arising from declining farm productivity due to unpredictable weather patterns (Richard et al., 1998; Nelson et al., 2009; FAO 2010). These copying mechanisms can be grouped into any number of ways but generally fall within three main realms.

The first realm is that of mitigation strategies and mainly involves management of the agro-ecosystem to enhance local-scale ecosystem service benefits on the fields, including control of soil erosion and crop rotation to reduce nutrient loss; mixed cropping to maximize soil nutrient use; using minimum tillage and mulching the soil with crop residues to conserve soil moisture; practicing agroforestry with trees that can fix nitrogen into the soil; striving to maintain natural hedges and on-farm trees that provide habitat for natural pest controllers such as insectivorous birds; and practicing organic farming by reducing use of expensive chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides thus minimizing costs while naturally restoring soil productivity.

The second realm is that of adaptation and involves such mechanisms as planting crop varieties that are resilient to adverse climatic conditions; selecting varieties that mature fast to take advantage of favourable periods of climate; planting strains of crops that have reasonable resistance to common pests and diseases; adopting affordable integrated pest management strategies such as crop rotation, fallow areas to break pest cycles; maintaining natural vegetation stands that host pest predators like birds; diversifying farming practice through inclusion of such non-agronomic activities as bee-keeping; or harvesting such pest species as locusts and crickets for sale in markets available for them so as to boost income.

The third realm involves efficient management mechanisms such as efficient crop harvesting and transport to reduce loss and wastage; using indigenous knowledge for good timing of farming operations to avoid being caught up on the wrong side of weather unpredictability; good crop storage methods including silo pooling during occasional bumper harvest seasons; efficient storage techniques to reduce post-harvest pest damage; adopting non-costly technologies such as rainwater harvesting and ditch impoundments of storm water after heavy rains for use in irrigation.

To the three realms above, I think two more may be added. One of these is the realm of strategies aimed at farmer self-empowerment with the aim of maximizing economic returns from crop production. They include shortening the marketing chain process for surplus crop volumes through value addition at the farm level (e.g. shelling corn before sale) and farm-based enterprise operations such as sale of fresh fruit brands. This may be mainly so if the market is not too far from the farm, like in the case of farms close to large institutions, international airports or urban areas. Additional mechanisms include joining farmer groups and cooperatives to benefit from cost reduction through resource pooling for farm operation while also boosting market access and bargaining power; and consolidation of family farm units and adopting land tenure regimes that can facilitate use of the farm as collateral to attract credit.

The second realm I can add is that of collaborative and policy exploitation strategies. They include mechanisms for collaborating with the media and grass-root NGOs while also engaging with policymakers and elected representatives to play their roles in helping small-scale farmers cope with impacts of climate change. These can be pursued in three main ways.

  1. Payment for ecosystem service: It is now widely recognized that small scale farming units constitute the largest proportion of total area of agricultural landscapes in developing countries. It is also widely known that many farming methods by the small-scale farmers contribute to some extent towards overall degradation of the landscape environment, mainly through diminished capacity to adopt more desirable farming practices. These include poor soil management methods, inefficient use of water resources, keeping livestock beyond land carrying capacities, slashing-and-burning as a way land clearing, or overexploitation of woody plants for domestic and commercial use. On the other hand many small-scale farmers also contribute to climate change mitigation through maintenance of on-farm trees which collectively sequester carbon; maintain natural hedges which host biodiversity, or establish woodlots on marginal hilly fields which helps to protect watersheds. To promote these beneficial effects at landscape and regional scales, many conservation and donor agencies have in the past two decades been embarking on partnership schemes aimed at up scaling these initiatives amongst farmers by encouraging trade-off contracts in which farmers undertake to incorporate agro-forestry practices or organic farming in exchange for financial incentives because ecosystem services accruing from such practices are enjoyed by whole communities. Hence Payment for Ecosystem Services or PES. Apart from the direct payments from the carbon investors and donor agencies, farmers also ultimately benefit from the trees by harvesting them for timber, fuel wood, fruits or fibre. The PES schemes have been intensively applied mainly in South-east Asia and South America. They have been largely quite successful in South America while in Southeast Asia, results have been mixed, partly due to the higher population densities which dictates for more intensive farming with little extra farm space disposable for non-crop plants. In Africa, implementation is still largely in pilot stages in many areas. Overall, PES promise viable opportunities for farmers to contribute to climate change mitigation, biodiversity conservation and environmental improvement without significantly compromising agricultural production. Many farmers involved in the projects in South America attested to the fact that they were able to leverage PES payments to other income generating activities that enhanced their overall social and economic wellbeing (Cole, 2010).

But PES have faced many challenges and obstacles. For instance they are likely to be viable only amongst farmers in landscapes that are not seriously water deficient, as trees grow at much lower pace than most crops. Secondly, as the payment level depends on the proportion of farmland dedicated for trees and natural vegetation, they tend to favour larger scale farmers who can afterall afford to spare more acreage for trees. As was found in a Costa Rica study case, this makes PES schemes less popular amongst many smaller scale farmers. Thirdly, decision as to what varieties of trees to be grown is often made by the investors rather than the farmers, increasing the likelihood of farmer divestiture from the scheme after a short trial if the chosen varieties do not meet their actual fringe needs. Fourth, while PES schemes certainly serve to improve the environment and provide additional incomes to farmers, they do not necessarily help to increase crop yields because the trees do take away part of the crop space.

  1. Holding policy makers to account: An observable characteristic of PES schemes is that governments, which are usually the key opportunistic beneficiaries of the PES schemes (as they delegate climate mitigation responsibilities to farmers) often tend to leave the investment in PES to environmental conservation NGOs. This makes the PES schemes less sustainable in many countries because NGOs operate on the basis of project longevity and funding availability, few of which are sustainable beyond a decade. Yet in many countries, governments are often agents of environmental degradation or neglect. Examples include government agencies and projects involved in commercial forest lumbering or large-scale road construction projects that cause massive soil erosion leading to significant sedimentation and reduction in levels of water bodies on which downstream farmers rely; damming projects that reduce the flow of water for irrigation or livestock needs; or even failing to fix urban effluent/sewers that discharge toxic waters leading to loss or failure of crops downstream. Such farmers need legal and institutional mechanisms through which they can hold governments accountable for actions (or omissions thereof) that aggravate agricultural system environment, or worsen climate change impacts. Lobbying their elected representatives to champion such causes in parliaments, highlighting their plights through the media press or liaisons with conservation NGOs via farmer co-operatives, are some possible pathways for holding civic leaders to account.
  2. Collaborations with environmental experts: To strengthen their case for PES and government accountability, farmers or their associations can collaborate with scientific experts to demonstrate evidence of negative impacts on the agricultural land caused by activities of governments or corporate entities. One important group of such experts is that of stable isotope scientists. Stable isotope analysis is now widely applied in environmental forensics to track sources and movements of organic and inorganic materials across landscapes and assess actual or potential environmental impacts. For instance, ?34S analysis of river sediments can reveal proportions of such upstream sediment emanating from agricultural estates, a recently degraded forest or construction site; analysis of ?18O in water can reveal which of a number of rivers feeding into a lake is a greater contributor of heavy metal pollution through ground water discharge while analysis of ?15N in organic effluent can reveal proportions of such effluent traceable from either a factory or domestic sewerage. Such expert evidence can be used for making a case for responsibility sharing by environmental degradation agents to compensate farmers through CEB or Compensation for Environmental Burdens.

As pointed out earlier, all these climate change copying strategies for small scale farmers  initially require deliberate efforts to sensitize and educate the farmers regarding their benefits since many such farmers are unable to mobilize resources to access the information on their own. There is plenty of opportunities in this regard, for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization wing, in partnerships with member states and funding agencies to invest in farmer awareness drives and field demonstrations through grass root farmer associations and groups, to provide initial technical impetus on adoption of the copying mechanisms by farmers. There is also need to further expand the spatial scope of payments for Ecosystem Service schemes and review methodologies based on past experiences so as to make them more appreciable and adoptable to the small scale farmer. Finally, any benefits from membership to strategic global institutions such as the UN, the World Bank and IMF should be made conditional on members states’ demonstrable efforts and track record in empowering their small-scale farmers to cope with impacts of climate change in boosting agricultural prodiction for food security.

References cited

Cole, JC (2010). Social and environmental impacts of payments for environmental services for agroforestry on small-scale farms in southern Costa Rica. International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology 17(3):2008-216.

FAO (2010). Climate-smart agriculture. Policies, practices and financing for food security, adaptation and mitigation. FAO Communications Division, Rome.

Nelson, G et al. (2009). Climate change: Impact on agriculture and costs of adaptation. The International Food Policy Research Institute. Pp. 30.

Richard M, Adams, RA, HurdB, Lenhart, S and Leary, N (1998). Effects of global climate change on agriculture: an interpretative review. Climate Research 11:19-30.

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