Looking into the past to learn how farmers can adapt today

Farmers need different set of techniques, science, empowerment, links to the local market and institutions and extension services in order to adapt to the changes in the climate. Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT)
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May 16, 2012



by Cecilia Schubert

What do farmers need in order to adapt to climate change and build resilience? This topic was discussed vividly during  the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) side event “Building resilience in the agricultural sectors for adaptation to climate change” held at the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) meetings. The ambition of the side event was to offer different perspectives and approaches for building resilience in agriculture for adaptation to climate change and pin down what we need to do in order to build resilience among farmers.

The side event took place on 15 May starting off with an introduction presentation by Alexandre Meybeck (FAO), signaling that now is really the time to showcase agriculture, to make sure it is discussed during the SBSTA meetings currently ongoing in Bonn, Germany. The hope is that the meeting will result in a work program on agriculture. FAO had also invited prominent panelists to the discussion, including James Kinyangi, from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), Robert Jordan, International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and Carl Shüler, Bread for the World.  

Agriculture is critical in the adaptation processes  

Meybeck’s presentation covered the bigger picture of climate smart agriculture. The aim was to introduce the complexity of adaptation and building resilience.

Agriculture is extremely important because we see that in the developing countries adaptation plans, 90 percent of all measurements relate to agriculture”, Alexander Meybeck said. “This really makes this conference a critical moment for agriculture and at the same time, it shows how important agriculture is for the adaptation processes”.

The problem, which also makes this area so complex, is the issue of differences in timescales (past, current and future), systems and perspectives (economic, social and ecological), and scales (national, regional, global). It is difficult to build resilience and getting prepared for an uncertain future, in a system where everything is interlinked and where action in one area could have unforeseen consequences in another. And climate change acts on all parts of the system as well as inside it. But building resilience and adapting for the future, is a challenge we have to undertake.

Building reactive capacity to reduce vulnerability can be done, Meybeck proposed, through diversification of activities and products, genetic resources – breeding and planting tougher and more durable crops and animal genetics. Meybeck also pointed to the need to build comprehensive strategies that reduce the potential of amplifyng risk effects.

Tapping into traditional knowledge to help communities adapt

The panelists answered questions on what they believed farmers needed in order to adapt and what new adaptation techniques were available to farmers at the moment. James Kinyangi, Regional Program Leader for the CCAFS East Africa region strongly argued that there is a need to not only look into the uncertain future, but also to look into history, on how past societies have adapted to previous changes in the climate and mitigated risks.

"Much could be learned from past experiences, from investigating which techniques were used to feed a population that subsisted mainly on meat and dairy; the same diet pattern that is increasing all over the world", said James. 

Historical risk management should be combined with today’s climate models and projections. Another important factor is the value of traditional knowledge, James continued. In terms of technologies and practices, we could learn a lot from traditional systems. In the earlier days, there as flexibility and possibility for movement in Africa, meaning that an exhausted piece of land could recover as people moved to other areas. Through land restoration activities and relieving the land from planting or grazing, the piece of land was again ready to be used after some time. Laws and restrictions have impeded these movement patterns in today’s Africa. But still much could be learned from traditional land management, because the knowledge exists among farmers.

Excluding women means a lost opportunity

Another important factor is the lack of gender focus within the agricultural context. "With women managing household- and agricultural chores, activities that build resilience, excluding women also means a lost opportunity to empower them into active agents of change", emphasized James Kinyangi.  

Women is a huge untapped resource when it comes to climate adaptation activities, because of their networks with other women in the community, knowledge of land, water and food, which they are responsible for in many African countries. There is thus a potential that involving women in climate change adaptation could reduce vulnerability for households and even communities.     

Putting farmers at the center of agricultural development

Robert Jordan from IFOAM mentioned the importance of putting farmers first in any adaptation process and to empower them to conduct the activities. At the moment the lack of engagement from stakeholders in farmers is very problematic. The existing knowledge, especially on organic farming also needs to come into use. Successful, affordable practices, such as using manure from animals which can increase yields, is one technique that should be further promoted and farmers need to be linked to local markets. There is thus huge potential in enabling farmers to revert from experiencing food insecurity to being the providers of food products. We need to rethink what we want to achieve and put the farmers at the centre, Robert concluded in his remarks.

In other words, there is a diverse portfolio of adaptation techniques for farmers, however, as discussed during the side event, we need more research on how to include women in adaptation activities, empower farmers and place them at the centre of the development i.e. rethinking the research and management process, as well as a need to implement extension services and build strong institutional systems. Existing, successful techniques must be further dispersed, made affordable and available to farmers. But as Meybeck pointed out, the field of agricultural adaptation and building resilience is a complex area that needs everyone to collaborate and work together, in order to ensure successful adaptation results in developing countries.  

This story was written by Cecilia Schubert, Communications Assistant at CCAFS Coordinating Unit. Follow the coverage of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) meetings all week on our blog, on twitter at @cgiarclimate and on Facebook.

Research related to the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) side event during the Bonn climate change meeting: