Nitrogen-fixation in Niger, Tanzanian migrations and a missing Botswanian breed

Adapting agriculture to climate change will take a whole-system approach. Photo courtesy of 37˚C

Nitrogen-fixing trees in Niger, weather-induced migration of Tanzanian farmers and a missing cattle breed in Botswana might seem an unlikely combination. But when it comes to adapting agriculture to climate change, they just happen to have something in common: Climate-Smart agriculture (CSA).

CSA – touted as “THE way” to adapt agriculture to our changing climate – was the topic of a side-event called The Role of the UN in Achieving Climate-Smart Agriculture, led by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Through opening remarks, a keynote address and a panel discussion, the event explored how CSA could enhance productivity, improve food security and support ecosystem resilience.

“Some 925 million people are going hungry today – eighty percent of them are smallholder farmers,” declared Sergio Zelaya in his opening remarks, emphasizing the urgent need to adapt agriculture to climate change.

Zelaya, Coordinator of the Policy for Advocacy on Global Issues (PAGI) Unit of the UNCCD Secretariat, explained that 70% is a staggering number: it is both the amount of food produced globally by smallholder farmers, and the increase in food production that will be required to feed the planet’s burgeoning population in 2050.

Climate change is likely to exacerbate food challenges in the future, Zelaya pointed out, adding that drylands are home to many food security “hotspots” in the developing world, making CSA an important approach in these regions.

Alexandre Meybeck, Senior Policy Officer on Agriculture, Environment and Climate Change of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), explained the CSA concept as one that tackles three global challenges: food security, adaptation and mitigation.

Drylands hold the key to adapting to climatic shocks, extremes and variability, he reasoned, as farmers in these areas have built knowledge and techniques over centuries to cope with challenges such as resource scarcity and uncertainty.

Meybeck also addressed the need to move towards more efficient systems, such as agroforestry, which can produce more food, more sustainably, from less land. In Niger, he explained, traditional agroforestry techniques are being restored in which trees provide both shelter and fodder for livestock, as well as fertilizing crops through nitrogen-fixation.

An integrated approach must be at the core of CSA, according to Meybeck – one that brings together sustainable agricultural practices, policies, programmes, institutions and finance, and views CSA as part of food security and sustainable development goals. He also stressed the need to support farmers, especially during the initial adoption of new practices, when farmers are exposed to the greatest levels of risk.

“Resilience has to be seen not only from a biophysical perspective, but from economic and social perspectives,” he said.

Meybeck pointed out that our inability to measure adaptation in terms of economic and social gains is a major barrier to transforming agriculture. Recent research by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) found that agroforestry reduced subsistence farmers’ vulnerability to climate change in western Kenya and also demonstrated clear gains in terms of well-being, food security and income for the farmers.

Sakhile Koketso, Programme Officer for the Dry and Subhumid Lands Programme of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Secretariat, explained the importance of agricultural diversity for climate change adaptation at the landscape, species and genetic level.

“Diversity’s almost like an insurance policy – you have many different breeds that are able to tolerate many different climatic conditions,” Koketso said, explaining that diversity in traditional crops and breeds becomes crucial when faced with threats like drought and disease which can extinguish entire breeds or species.

Conserving biodiversity at species level is critical, she said “…because those species will provide us with the genetic pool that is required to innovate for climate change adaptation.” At the same time, it is important to maintain the wild relatives of food – both in terms of species and genetic diversity. “Most food that we see on our plate today is the result of the domestication over centuries of wild plants and wild animals,” she said.

According to Koketso, the primary drivers of the loss of agricultural diversity are climate change, land degradation and the commercialization of agriculture. The latter is largely responsible for the loss of animal breeds used for food and agriculture globally (at a rate of one breed per month, according to the FAO), as production focuses increasingly on a select few breeds.

In Koketso’s own country, Botswana, a traditional breed of heat tolerant and drought- and predator-resistant cattle has recently vanished. Its traditional breeders explained that government pressure drove interbreeding with a higher meat yielding breed. The result? Breeders must now invest more time into caring for cattle which have greater susceptibility to drought and predators.

“…the problem is also not just climate change, but also in the way policy has sought to increase food security, increase the availability of food,” Koketso argued. “…what we need to do in order to adapt to climate change is to look at the whole system and see how the system also can be adapted to help local farmers.”

Koko Warner, Head of the Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability and Adaptation Section at the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), explained that households’ perceptions of rainfall variability feed into risk link management strategies, which in turn affect their food and livelihood security.

A case study in Tanzania demonstrated that vulnerable households were more likely to employ risk-management strategies such as migration. These households, she explained, “…are really sensitive and they’re using tools like migration, eating less, eating less nutritious food, engaging in erosive coping strategies which might do exactly the opposite from good agricultural and livelihood practices.”

Keith Alverson, Head of the Climate Change Adaptation and Terrestrial Ecosystems Branch of the Division on Environmental Policy Implementation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), argued that we need to think beyond agriculture and consider “markets, food waste, development and infrastructure and the existence of healthy ecosystems and services” to address food security.

Fixating on a particular climate projection is also not the best way to look forward, he said, pointing out that while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC AR4) projected increased moisture year-round for the Horn of Africa, this did nothing to prepare the region for last year’s extreme drought and the 1000s of deaths that it caused.

“Our adaptation plans have to include a wide range of plausible hypotheses…” he pointed out. “I would just encourage us all to think about high variability, to think about extreme events and to be preparing for this range of conditions and ensuring our resilience.”

The UNCCD side-event
The Role of the UN in Achieving Climate-Smart Agriculture was held on Thursday, 06 Dec, 2012 as part of the 18th United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP18) in Doha, Qatar.

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Related Publications:

Making climate-smart agriculture work for the poor

Reducing subsistence farmers’ vulnerability to climate change: evaluating the potential contributions of agroforestry in western Kenya


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