Small farmers in the developing world who are going hungry for long periods of time - in some cases for up to half the year in Ethiopia's Borana region - are failing to find ways to adapt to an increasingly erratic climate, a new survey has found.
The survey, which was conducted just ahead of the severe drought in East Africa in 2011, interviewed 700 households in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. It was designed to develop simple, comparable, cross-site household-level indicators to assess if small farmers were able to diversify, adapt and adopt new farming practices in the face of climate change.
The team of researchers involved in the survey found that households that were food secure for longer periods of time were able to experiment with new farming approaches and techniques, such as planting drought- or flood-tolerant varieties of seeds.
"When you are without food, you cannot really innovate," said Patti Kristjanson, agricultural economist for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), which led the study." It stands to reason that households struggling to feed their families throughout the year are not in a good position to invest in new practices that include higher costs and risks.”
Not being able to adapt is contributing to food insecurity, she added. “So it is critical that we learn more about both the factors that enable and facilitate innovation, and how to lower the often hidden costs and barriers associated with changing agricultural practices.”
|When you are without food, you cannot really innovate|
The survey attempted to find out what farmers had been doing for the past 10 years to cope with the changing climate. "We hope to go back for more - this is just a snapshot of what is happening on the ground," said Kristjanson. Not enough research has been done to find out whether small producers, including pastoralists and fishing communities, were able to incorporate messages and programmes on adapting.
The few studies completed reveal that small farmers could be facing a number of simultaneous challenges, driving them into food insecurity. Researchers from the Senegal-based Cheik Anta Diop University have been conducting surveys in Niger's food insecure Maradi District, where small farmers depend on increasingly erratic rains for their crops.
In 2007, the researchers found that 50 percent of farmers said they were forced to consume their entire produce within three months. In previous years as a back-up they had grown vegetables with the help of water drawn from the Goulbi river. But as rain became scarce and with the construction of an upstream dam in Nigeria, the river, which used to flow for at least six months after the rainy season, was now dry for most of the year.
CCAFS study - mixed results
The CCAFS study of average small farmers in the Horn and East Africa showed relatively poor results in terms of the take up of a more sustainable form of agriculture better able to cope with erratic weather patterns:
- Only 25 percent of households have begun using local manure or compost (good for the soil) rather than expensive chemical fertilizers which can have negative environmental impacts; 23 percent are now mulching;
- Only 16 percent of the surveyed households introduced improved soil management techniques such as terracing which reduce water and soil losses;
- Only 10 percent have begun trying to store or manage agricultural water;
- Only 34 percent have reduced livestock herd sizes but 48 percent are managing their resources better, for example by growing crops for animal feed.
More positively, the study indicated that:
- 55 percent of households have taken up at least one shorter-cycle crop variety, and 56 percent adopted at least one drought-tolerant variety;
- 50 percent of households are planting trees on their farms, a practice known as agroforestry. These trees help stabilize eroding landscapes, increase water and soil quality, and provide yields of fruit, tea, coffee, oil, fodder, medicinal and energy products;
-50 percent introduced intercropping - alternating different plants on the same plot; - 25 percent started rotating their crops in the last decade.
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"These changes can help farmers adjust to changing weather patterns; and better diets can also lower methane emissions [from animals] per kilogram of meat and milk produced," said CCAFS in a statement.
CCAFS researchers acknowledge that climate change is only one of several key driving forces behind the changes seen and "it is very difficult to disentangle the relative importance of different driving forces."
They noted that the changes made by households in the past 10 years "tend to be marginal, rather than transformational, and the lack of uptake of well-tested and widely-disseminated soil, water and land management practices is cause for concern."
In a statement accompanying the findings, Bruce Campbell, the CCAFS programme director, said: "Farmers need more than words. They need innovative strategies that will help them adapt to the increased demand brought on by climate change and other factors. We need to redouble efforts to ensure not just their current and future food security but the rest of the world’s as well.”
Campbell highlighted Rio+20 as a prime example of this trend. "The final text for Rio+20 recognized the connections between sustainable agriculture, smallholder farmers and food security, but lacked concrete commitments or a plan of action. We urge national leaders to embrace these challenges and safeguard global food security by helping farmers face a changing climate."
Strength in numbers
A publication released earlier this year by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) entitled Good Practices in Building Innovative Rural Institutions to Increase Food Security, used 35 case studies to show how institutions such as farmer cooperatives had innovated in groups to benefit poor farmers who lack the services and support to innovate.
"For instance, input shops in Niger have enabled small producers to develop effective local input markets by grouping input demand and supplying them in quantities and types that are adapted specifically to their needs and limited financial capacities," said the publication.
Kenya’s African leafy vegetable farmers have in some cases organized themselves into groups to be able to enter into contractual arrangements with supermarkets and ensure food quantity, quality and timely delivery arrangements.