Climate change is not a source of scientific contention, but how to farm in the future is a hot topic 

Agroecological Methods Help Farmers Adapt to Climate Change

October 19, 2015


Climate change is not a source of scientific contention, but how to farm in the future is a hot topic.

Farming and livestock production are responsible for about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, increased global temperatures are expected to have dramatic impacts on food production. Some scientists predict crop yields in Africa could fall by 20 percent or more unless changes are made.

The conventional cocktail of fertilizer and herbicides will help some farmers increase food production in the short term—if farmers can afford these inputs. For many poor farmers, however, such methods would only increase their costs and debt.

As a social scientist with a background in soil science, I’ve studied different agricultural methods with small-scale farmers in Africa. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve found that certain low-cost and low-technology techniques, combined with community-led education, offer the most promise. Agroecological methods—farming practices that mimic nature by adding organic material to soil and using natural enemies to attack insect pests—can build resilience in the face of climate change.

Hurricane Mitch, one of the five most powerful hurricanes of the century in the Caribbean, caused more than 10,000 deaths and $6.7 billion in damage in 1998. But it came with a small blessing: a chance to see whether farm techniques mattered for recovery. Scientists found that farmers using agroecological methods before the hurricane had more vegetation, lower soil erosion, and less economic loss.

The Soils, Food, and Healthy Communities project has been teaching agroecological methods in hundreds of Malawian villages over the last 15 years, and the results have been impressive. Farmers started planting crops that enhance soil fertility, such as peanuts, beans, and pigeonpea. Families had improved child nutrition, and food security was enhanced along with land quality. These methods are now expanding to thousands of farmers through the Malawi Farmer to Farmer Agroecology project, funded by the Canadian government.

We are also developing a farmer-led curriculum that integrates teaching about climate change, agroecology, nutrition, gender, and social equity, using participatory methods such as theater and discussion. This curriculum, which brings together Malawian farmers, project staff, and scientists in several disciplines, is funded by ACSF’s Academic Venture Fund. Farmers expert in agroecological methods and community-led education will test out the curriculum with 1,000 farmers in Malawi and Tanzania, and we will refine and adapt it based on their experiences.

20151019-BeznerKerr3-300x300.jpgAnita Chitaya (photo: Vicky Santoso)

Anita Chitaya is one such farmer. Two years ago, Anita faced a tough decision: help her neighbors survive that summer or ensure her family survived for the next two years. Severe drought had decimated her northern Malawi village’s food supply, and many of her neighbors’ crops had failed. Yet she and her husband had enough harvest to last several years, with a bounty of corn, millet, groundnuts, beans, soya, sweet potatoes, and cassava. Why? Because Anita had supplied her soils with a rich source of organic material from crop residue.

She used innovative farming techniques, such as growing different soil-enriching legumes and rotating her crops. Her hard work led to improved soil quality, which allowed her to grow a wider diversity of crops, and as a result, minimize risks. It turns out that diversifying crops can play a crucial role in helping rural communities adapt to climate change.

At the same time, there have been many challenges. A wider range of crops means a farmer needs greater access to seeds and knowledge about how to grow and cook these foods. The farming practices can also be more labor-intensive.

To ensure that new activities are not just increasing women’s workload and reducing their time for other important activities such as breastfeeding and child care, we’ve established community-organized educational activities, such as village “crop residue promotion” days. These events have been important for sharing knowledge and encouraging all household members to get involved.

Anita joined the project at a time when her farm had poor soils, and her children were malnourished. She took up the call for experimentation, trying all sorts of different combinations in her fields, and also became a farmer research leader. Thanks to her and other farmer researchers, we now have a far better understanding of what methods for farming can be successful in areas ravaged by climate change.

Farmer-led experimentation—having farmers learn on the ground what works in their fields—has been an important part of our success. Farmer-to-farmer teaching is another key ingredient, along with community strategies to address social inequalities such as gender discrimination that prevent these farming benefits from reaching the most vulnerable groups.

Anita and her colleagues face an uphill battle. This year the Malawi government has announced that overall crop yields will fall by almost one-third, due to drought in the north and floods in the south. Recent reports anticipate severe impacts, particularly on the poor. In a country where the majority of people grow at least half of their own food supply, this news suggests that the coming year will be grim for Anita’s village and families across the country.

The most recent climate change studies leave no room for doubt that human activities primarily in the Global North release carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, leading to unprecedented shifts in climate. A recent study found that Africa contributes only about two percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

It is not too late—and certainly not too soon—to heed Anita’s example, and to support this innovative, farmer-led approach to adapting to climate change, while working to reduce our own climate impacts on our shared planet.

Rachel Bezner Kerr, Development Sociology, is a partner in Soils, Food, and Healthy Communities and the Malawi Farmer to Farmer Agroecology project, both based in Malawi.


An earlier version of this article appeared in The Conversation.
Feature photo: Farmer-led community event (Carmen Bezner Kerr)