Sound farming advice for a ‘new normal’ climate

It’s natural to wonder whether our current climate—with its erratic rainfall patterns and increasingly frequent weather upheavals—will ever return to normalcy. According to a leading development expert, it won’t.

“The planet’s climate has changed irreversibly; continued change is the new normal,” Brent M. Simpson, Deputy Director of the USAID-funded Modernizing Extension and Advisory Service (MEAS) project, told a recent forum in Nairobi.

Simpson, who is an Associate Professor of International Development at Michigan State University (MSU), spoke at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) at a special seminar convened by the Centre’s Tree Products and Markets program. His talk examined the role of agricultural extension and advisory services in a changing climate.

The events leading to the ‘new normal’ climate that we find ourselves in started with the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s–1800s. The widespread burning of coal and oil has since that time pumped massive quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so that atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration—which for the past 650,000 years had never gone above 300 ppm— have continued to climb upwards. (In fact, two days after the seminar, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, announced that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 reached 400 ppm for the first time in the history of our species. Such CO2 levels have not been seen in the past 3 million years. )

Sahelian farmer with extension workers. Farmers will need to adapt to our 'new normal' climate to feed a growing population. Photo by Brent Simpson

Sahelian farmer with extension workers. Farmers will need to adapt to our ‘new normal’ climate to feed a growing population. Photo by Brent Simpson

Unless drastic action is taken, the World Bank concluded in its 2012 report Turn Down the Heat, we are on track for a 4-degrees Celsius temperature increase by the end of the century, with devastating effects on the planet ecosystems and humanity.

By altering the planet’s climate, global warming changes everything. In some areas the rainy and dry seasons have shifted significantly and become unpredictable. Monsoon winds have grown weaker, affecting the rains that support agriculture in large swathes of Asia. And the geography of where crops once thrived, along with pest and disease ranges, are all shifting.

Using examples from maize and bean production systems carried out by CIAT and Catholic Relief Services in Central America, Simpson outlined three scenarios for farming that the new normal presents:

  • Hot spots: Current crops will suffer over 50% yield reduction, making them economically unviable.
  • Adaptation spots: Crops here will suffer 25-49% yield reductions; their production practices will need modification.
  • Pressure spots: Places with more favorable conditions for production in the future, where conservation efforts will be important.

Farmers worldwide, challenged with feeding a global population anticipated to reach 9 billion by 2050, are the most affected by the ‘new normal’ climate. They will need to adapt their crops and practices.

Simpson emphasized that since the emergence of agrarian societies, “farmers have had to make real-time decisions every growing season in order to produce a crop.” He used the example of the African Sahel, where in the 1970s the area’s seasonal rainfall trend suddenly nosedived and remained low.

“In order to cope with their new climate farmers in the Sahel changed locations of where crops were planted; acquired new varieties of existing crops; adopted or expanded cultivation of new crops, and changed land use,” he said.

“I wonder how many of us would fare if handed a hoe amidst a changing climate?” he continued.

According to Simpson, agricultural extension and advisory services (EAS) will become ever more important as both a critical link between farmers, sources of information and tools, and as facilitators of widespread behavioral adaptation under the new normal climate.

“Agroforestry, conservation agriculture, and other ‘climate-smart’ farming technologies that diversify and build resilience in the ecosystem will grow in importance in the new normal climate. Such knowledge-intensive farming techniques rely on extension and advisory services, with government-run programs working alongside and buttressing NGO and private-sector initiatives,” he stated.

Using the example of the devastating Hurricane Mitch in Honduras, which caused agricultural losses of $2.3 billion, Simpson said plots under conservation agriculture (CA)—which uses permanent crop cover, erosion control features and minimum tillage—suffered 58-99% less damage than those under conventional farming.

“In the aftermath of Mitch, farmers saw for themselves the differences between CA areas and other plots, and this led to a huge upsurge in the demand for assistance in adopting climate-smart agricultural practices in the area,” said Simpson.

“Climate-related crises can create a teach-able moment; an opportunity to communicate the concept of climate change, and to impart knowledge on best practices to farmers,” he recommended.

Under the new normal climate, the best approaches to supporting and advising farmers will meet several criteria, said Simpson. They will

  • Rely on farmer’s innate capacities to adapt new tools to their local context
  • Seek interventions at scales that are appropriate for the risks, at the plot to landscape levels, timed to maximize benefits during their windows of opportunity
  • Apply systems thinking that responds to and anticipates linkages between system components, take broad principles,
  • Look for multiple wins and no-regret strategies, and
  • Learn from the past and from areas that are already drier or wetter, hotter and more risk-prone.

Simpson emphasized that the role of Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services extends to climate-change mitigation. “The very act of feeding ourselves is a major part of the problem, since agriculture is responsible for up to one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions,” he noted.

“The good news is that the nearly 2 billion smallholder farmers, managing more than 20 million square kilometres of the earth’s surface, offer a tremendous opportunity to sequester carbon in soils and woody biomass.”

Research by ICRAF and partners has shown that agroforestry helps farmers adapt to climate change in many important ways, such as raising on-farm productivity and diversity, as well as environmental resilience. By storing carbon, billions of trees on farms can play a huge role in mitigating climate change.

Simpson recommended several policy-level actions that will help agriculture cope with the new normal climate, including using computer-based applications, upgrading pre-service education and in-service training programs, and balancing policies and investments.

With appropriate extension and advisory services backed up by enabling policies, farmers can face the ‘new normal’ with increased confidence, capitalizing on “multi-win, no regret options” that will allow them to continue to feed the planet’s burgeoning population while playing a role in limiting the planet’s further warming.

View presentation on SlideShare: Agriculture Extension and Advisory Services under the New Normal of Climate Change

Download World Bank report: Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided [PDF]


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Mitigation and adaptation: a perfect marriage made on farms

Five ways agroforestry helps farmers adapt to climate change

Carbon dioxide level crosses milestone at Hawaii site

Brent M. Simpson is Associate Professor, International Development, in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Resource Economics at Michigan State University (MSU). Over the past 29 years he has worked in over twenty countries, primarily in Africa.  Currently he serves at the Deputy Director of the USAID-funded Modernizing Extension and Advisory Service (MEAS) Project and manages MSU’s involvement several agricultural development efforts.  He is the former Program Leader for Technology Transfer and Systems Development with the Africa Rice Center, former Convener of the Rural Policy and Project Planning Program, Institute of Social Studies, in The Hague, and served in the Peace Corps in Zaire.  Over the past decade he has carried out consultancies and advisory work with the CGIAR centers, FAO, MCC, USAID, World Bank and WWF.  Dr. Simpson has his M.Sc. in Agriculture Extension and Education, and Ph.D. in Resource Development, both from Michigan State University.'

Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences ( and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

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