The bad news is that it looks like climate change is here to stay. The good news is that there are a number of cost effective, sustainable methods farmers can adopt immediately to lessen the blow.
Beth Hoffman: Can you summarize – What are some of the main “take aways” from the data CGIAR has collected over the years regarding climate adaptation and mitigation for farmers? If you were going to relate just a few things that were most important, what would you tell people?
Sonja Vermeulen: One of the key messages is that there are potential triple wins – for adaptation, mitigation and food security – which is increasingly being called “climate smart agriculture.”
A simple example is, if a farmer increased the organic matter in their soil, that increases the carbon storage – a mitigation function – but more organic matter also means better water capacity. So that means you are much better able to deal with delayed onset of rains or dry spells, which are the kinds of problems farmers are dealing with under climate change. The increased organic content would also raise the fertility of the soil which would also be better for yields and for food security.
There are also many things that farmers can do on their own, by themselves, soon, like increasing the diversity of what they’ve got planted, or changing the planting dates and what they feed to animals. That’s very good within near term.
But for longer term climate change on a wider scale, we need bigger actions – what people are calling “transformative adaptation.” An example would be that coffee systems are extremely sensitive to temperature, and science is predicting that in countries like Nicaragua and Colombia as soon as 2030 farmers might lose up to 50% of their growing area or more. So there you need much bigger adaptation actions – farmers would have to move out of coffee and into a different crop and coffee companies would need to change where they are sourcing their beans.
It is also important to note that there is also a lot that government policies and companies can do to help. For example, farmers often need support in order to make changes. Sometimes that is with direct investment, as we can see with the example of mangrove improvements or improving infrastructure. Access to better roads or inputs, for example, can really help farmers, particularly in developing nations.
Policy changes too, like promoting agroforestry, can also make a big difference. In Niger, for example, over 5 million hectares – an additional 20 million trees – have been planted by farmers themselves on their own farms. What allowed that to happen, among other things, was a simple change in law that allowed farmers to have a resource ownership over the trees, whereas before it was owned by the Forest Department and there wasn’t much incentive to plant trees. So this simple change in policy at a national level allowed this huge scale to be reached and farmers reaped the benefits of that.
BH: It strikes me that most of the techniques CCAFS talks about are very “low tech” – mixing cropping systems, rotating crops and livestock, using wild plant varieties, etc. Is it true that many of the solutions CCAFS found to help in the face of climate change are not high tech?
Certainly in terms of moving quickly and effectively on adaptation in low resource, small holder, developing countries, the largest gains are with fairly low tech, established technologies. Many of those practices have been used for decades, if not centuries. For example, digging terraces to manage erosion and making sure there are buffers of mangroves – these are things we already knew about.
But in some cases there are new techniques, like alternate wetting and drying of rice fields. In 2005, farmers and researchers learned that if you drain rice fields periodically, and re-wet, farmers can get a lot of savings in irrigation and energy costs. A side benefit was that it also lowers methane emissions from rice (rice fields are one of biggest methane emitters). A great additional win was higher yields. There are also very high tech, more sophisticated farming methods that can help, like micro dosing – pumping in exactly the right amount water and nutrients directly to the roots.
For the most part, the “new” technologies specific to climate are focused on – how can we predict patterns better and communicate that information effectively to farmers? Farmers – particularly in poorer countries – are very widely dispersed and may not have high literacy. And so we need to do a lot of work to get farmers better climate information so they can make better decisions on a day by day, year by year basis.
Thinking about the future of food security and feeding the 9 billion under climate change doesn’t just require attention to how much food we are producing. There are also trade barriers, rising food prices, and distribution which are also issues. Can we also find better ways to distribute and waste less food? An FAO report last September found we throw away 1/3 of food, and so solving consumption patterns is also part of the puzzle.
BH: What makes these methods “sustainable”? How are you using the term?
A big theme that is emerging is an idea of sustainable intensification.
The idea here is that one of the biggest impacts farming has on greenhouse gas emissions – but also on biodiversity – is its impact on forest clearance. It actually makes more sense to grow more on smaller area – even if that means using more inputs like fertilizer – so as long as what you do at the same time is leave a larger area of forest. You need to think at the landscape level when you are thinking about if what is going on on the farm is sustainable or not.
That said, we also want to think about what can be done to increase yields on smaller areas while increasing inputs as little as possible. You want to not use more fertilizer, not to use more energy, but in some cases you will have to do a little of that, especially in very low input systems in Africa where they use less than 5% of fertilizer levels used in Asia for instance.
And so we might see things which have not traditionally counted as “sustainable” or “ecolological” in this case considered good practice, as long as it saves forests. What we are saying is what we don’t have a vision of absolute perfection, where we want every farm to be self contained with internal recycling on farm – we just don’t think that is achievable. But we do think that almost any farming system in world can improve its sustainability. They can all improve their environmental management.
Advanced economies have made huge gains here as well. Between 1990-2010, Denmark decreased its agricultural emissions by 20 percent, with no loss whatsoever in profitability. So there is enormous scope in becoming more sustainable in almost any farming system.
Sustainability also needs to take into account the whole food chain. For example, you might argue that finding ways to grow tobacco or a similar crop with less fertilizer would be really good. But at a larger scale you may say – maybe that is not really the best use of our agricultural land, and in fact the best thing we can do for sustainability is to grow something else. Tobacco is particularly unpopular now around the world, but that would also apply to the amount of meat we produce or dairy. You would need to weigh the benefits as compared to more plant based diets.