Turning up the heat: climate-proofing agriculture

09/02/2015

By Nick Moss and Kristofer Gravning

In 2014, more than 20 governments and 30 organisations launched a Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture. This was historic. It marked the first step in climate proofing one of the most important livelihood sectors in the world: agriculture.

But 2015 hasn’t been a great year for protecting populations vulnerable to climate change; especially farmers in Malawi. The new year brought new tragedies for one of the poorest countries in the world: 15 out of 28 districts were flooded and 40,000 hectares of agricultural land destroyed, displacing over 200,000 people.

For Malawians, and other developing countries, extreme weather will increasingly become the norm. Agricultural sectors are extremely vulnerable to climatic changes. High temperatures and unstable weather conditions will continue to affect harvests, and yields will continue to drop in the face of unstable weather conditions. This will only get worse as global temperatures are forecast to rise by more than two degrees Celsius within the next 35 years.

Agriculture is the economic foundation of many African countries, contributing approximately 40 percent of Africa’s total gross GDP. For many countries, agricultural development offers one of the best opportunities to promote job growth and improve incomes in rural areas. By 2050, Africa is expected to more than double its population to 2.4 billion. Feeding the continent will be one of the most important challenges of the 21st century, which further increases the importance of agriculture.

However, climate change threatens livelihoods, economic growth and development. “Climate resilient” methods of agriculture must be adopted before it is too late. For example, in Malawi farmers need to use crops accustomed to higher precipitation, change crop cycles to conform to seasonal patterns and use sustainable fertilizers to increase productivity.

At the moment, productivity is low due to under-investment, poor access to fertilizers and quality seeds, low grade technology, and poor training and capacity. Many smallholder farmers have been using the same techniques for generations, and systemic change to ensure agriculture is resilient requires a shift in behaviour change. Farmers need technical support and training to develop capacity in new farming techniques to deal with climate threats.

Each community will require advice tailored to specific climatic threats. Similarly they need access to funds to finance the purchase of new agricultural inputs and technologies: flood defences, terraces for conserving soil and water, proper irrigation, drainage systems and local meteorological warning systems. Governments can also help farmers manage climate risks by developing safety nets such as climate smart insurance products and financial structures that make it easier for farmers to invest in more climate friendly and resilient infrastructure.

The best way to help the 120,000 farmers affected by Malawi’s devastating floods is to help them develop agricultural livelihoods that can withstand the climatic shocks of the future. However, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. A smarter approach is needed: context-specific interventions. The international community must play an important role in ensuring climate-resilient farming practices; before it is too late.
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