Farmers Are Ready to Do Their Part on Climate Change

The half billion smallholder farms spread across the world's developing countries are at the intersection of humanity's two greatest challenges: reversing climate change and feeding a rapidly growing global population.

Most of the people who operate these farms are desperately poor. But it would be foolish to contemplate environmental and food security solutions without them. Together, smallholder farmers manage vast areas of our planet, including 80 percent of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

The task before them is immense. To ensure global food security they must reduce their crop losses and post-harvest waste, and substantially increase their annual output over the next several decades. They have to do it on virtually the same amount of arable land that they have today. And, in many areas, they must overcome increasingly volatile agricultural markets, the growing insecurity of access to land, and the degradation of natural resources on which they depend.

At the same time, while farmers themselves are among the most vulnerable to the risks that climate change brings, they too must find ways to work in more environmentally sustainable ways. Agriculture itself, including large-and small-scale operations, accounts for 14 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted each year, and when you factor in land-use change and forestry, where agriculture is the primary driver, the figure jumps to a whopping 30 percent.

The experience of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) shows that no matter how small their operations or how poor they are, small farmers in developing countries can actually grow more while at the same time adopting sustainable, environment-friendly methods that help them adapt to the problems that climate change often creates for them. But we must support developing countries to improve policies and incentives to enable small farmers to adopt climate-smart practices and approaches.

Creating an enabling environment for them to manage their risks, access markets, and get the technical know-how they need to succeed in their businesses are all essential to driving them toward a climate-smart, more productive agriculture. We must all recognize that, above all else, farming is a business, even for the poorest farmers on the planet. Today's focus needs to show small farmers not only how to increase their yields through sustainable approaches, but also how to make money and improve their lives when they implement such approaches.

In addition to this, we must rethink agriculture in the face of today's climate change and food security challenges. The enormous, life-giving success of the "Green Revolution" -- which a generation ago focused on the proliferation of high yielding, pest- and-disease-resistant varieties of staple crops like rice and wheat -- needs to give way to new, environmentally sustainable approaches that preserve and enhance the soil and ground water and use natural processes working with, rather than against, ecosystems to fertilize crops and to ward off pest damage.

At IFAD we've seen these techniques work in many places. In parts of Africa, new agroforestry methods such as planting acacia trees in maize fields have helped farmers double their yields, as well as improving soil conditions for longer term productivity. In South Gansu province of China, I saw with my own eyes how local farmers are fighting drought and improving soil quality through a variety of basic techniques such as rainwater harvesting. And in Burkina Faso, smallholder farmers are deploying simple water harvesting techniques such as planting pits and permeable rock dams, along with crop-livestock integration to increase their productivity and restore degraded land.

These may sound like very simple practices, and they are. But these examples, and many others like them, show the enormous potential of the world's small farmers to improve their life by adopting climate-smart techniques. We need to scale up these approaches so they become common practice by reshaping the architecture of public and private development finance so that small farmers can learn these techniques, see their value, and make a profit.

As we look ahead to the Rio+20 climate talks, let us keep in mind that agriculture, food security and climate change are all bound tightly together. Clearly, the challenge of growing more food can be met only if sustainability is the foundation of approaches to food security and poverty reduction in every country and every community.