Small-scale farmers around the world are at the frontline of the impacts of climate change, and also could hold the key to one of the most effective means of addressing greenhouse gases. In the run up to the next round of climate talks in Paris, we need to start thinking of ways in which sustainable models of food production can be put in the centre stage alongside renewable energy production. In a similar way that fossil fuel companies like BP and Shell are becoming stigmatized for their role in preventing meaningful action on green energy, we need to be scaling up popular resistance against Monsanto and other big agribusiness companies who are trying to impose industrial food models on people who have been practicing climate-friendly agriculture for generations.
Global farming and climate change
The global food system, which includes agricultural production, fertiliser production and food storage, is responsible for around a third of all greenhouse gases emitted globally. Agriculture, and the food sector as a whole, is, therefore, one of the main drivers of climate change.
Production, processing, transporting and consuming food accounts for 30% of global energy consumption and industrial agriculture in particular, is totally dependent on fossil fuels, both as fuel for machinery, transport and fertiliser production, as well as petroleum-based pesticides and herbicides. Africa’s farming systems are extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 98% of sub-Saharan agriculture is rainfed and, therefore, exposed to the impacts of climate variability, droughts and floods.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report states that
agroecological practices, such as agroforestry, organic farming and conservation agriculture, are practices that can “strengthen resilience of the land base to extreme events and broaden sources of livelihoods, both of which have strongly positive implications for climate risk management and adaptation”.
Agroecology can reduce climate change impacts
Agroecology refers to the science of sustainable farming as well as a social and political movement that aims to improve the food system.Agroecological practices can help to reduce the impacts of climate change. Crop rotation, improved grazing, cropland and manure management, maintaining and restoring the fertility of soils, conserving energy and water use and year-round crop cover can all help to sequester carbon dioxide and reduce agriculture’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and its impact on the environment.
Organic farming systems can sequester more carbon dioxide than industrial farms, and sustainable farming in general tends to require fewer carbon intensive external inputs (such as chemical fertilisers). It has also been shown that soils managed using organic methods can hold water better and produce more yields than conventional farming systems in conditions of drought or heavy rainfall.
The FAO report on ‘Low Greenhouse Gas Agriculture’ outlines two scenarios based on a certain proportion of conventional farms converting to organic farming. This conversion could potentially mitigate between 40 and 65% of the world’s GHG emissions from agriculture.
Agroforestry has been shown to help reduce farmers’ exposure to climate-related risks. Planting ‘fertiliser trees’ can help the soil retain moisture during droughts, as well as providing additional income through firewood and offering a less risky investment than chemical fertilisers in the event of crop failure. In western Kenya, agroforestry has benefited women in particular who have access to a stable source of cooking fuel and income from firewood which has been shown to help reduce their vulnerability to climate change.
Small-scale farmers and agroecological practices also play a central role in conserving crop diversity, and developing varieties of plants which are adapted to a range of weather conditions including droughts.
In 2010, a drought in Guangxi, in south-west China, destroyed many of the modern crop varieties (hybrids) while the better adapted traditional varieties (improved landraces and open pollen varieties), such as drought and wind resistant maize, were able to survive. Furthermore, villages involved in Participatory Plant Breeding programmes were able to recover better after the drought because they had more of their own seed varieties, whereas other villages, which had in the past grown hybrid seeds, struggled due to a shortage of hybrid seeds on the commercial market. When the 2009 hurricane in West Bengal turned large amounts of farm land into salty ponds, only a handful of farmers were still preserving salt-tolerant varieties of rice on their farms. Even the most high-yielding modern varieties of rice were useless on salty soil; it was the traditional rice varieties that were needed.
In Kenya, the Mijikenda people adopted many improved crop varieties during the Green Revolution while continuing to plant traditional variants of important crops like maize, millet and cassava. Due to the impact of climate change, many farmers have returned to their traditional varieties and are planting different varieties together to reduce the risk of crop failure. Instead of planting a modern hybrid variety, they now mix maize varieties like mingawa (which matures with extended rainfall), mzihana (matures with medium rains) and kastoo (more drought-resistant). By doing this farmers have made themselves more resilient to the impact of climate change, more independent of commercial seed breeders, and can avoid using expensive chemical inputs which are required with modern hybrid seeds.
In South Africa, research has shown that farmers have already started noticing seasonal temperature changes, which predict drought, and begun adapting pre-emptively by planting short-season and faster growing crops, as well as planting more drought-resistant crop varieties, increasing irrigation and planting trees to help mitigate the effects of climate change.
Locally developed varieties of rice in West Africa, in countries such as Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and Togo, have been shown to be extremely adaptable and ‘robust’ because they have been bred over generations specifically to cope with difficult ecological and social conditions. These ‘farmer rice varieties’ are often more productive than imported varieties of rice, can grow with less inputs than modern varieties and require less maintenance.
Further afield, researchers have shown how farms based on agroecological principles can be more resilient to the impacts of natural disasters like hurricanes. A survey carried out in 360 communities across Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, showed that farms that had used sustainable agriculture methods had suffered considerably less damage than conventional farms.
Sustainable farms had up to 40% more topsoil and had suffered less economic loss than neighbouring conventional farms. In Chiapas, Mexico, coffee-based farms which had more plant diversity had also suffered less damage from Hurricane Stan in 2005 than more conventional plantations. In Cuba in 2008, monoculture farms suffered greater losses (95%) from the impact of Hurricane Ike than highly diverse agroecologically managed farms (50% losses). Agroecological farms were also able to recover faster after the hurricane.
Agroecology in action
These examples show that agroecology is not a marginal practice carried out by a handful of farmers. It is already widely practised by farmers across the world and helps to feed millions of people. In many cases the techniques are inexpensive, simple and effective, which means there has been little commercial interest in researching, developing and distributing them. But the evidence is unequivocal. Agroecology can increase food yields, income, employment, agricultural biodiversity, and health and nutrition, and help to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Ian Fitzpatrick is a researcher with Global Justice Now.
- Checkwww.globaljustice.org.uk/food for the latest actions calling on the UK government to support agroecology instead of corporate-controlled farming in Africa.
- Join the UK food sovereignty movement, www.foodsovereigntynow.org.uk
This article is an excerpt of ‘From the roots up‘, a report about how agroecology can feed Africa.