Negotiators may be struggling to make headway on agriculture at the U.N. climate talks in Warsaw, but fortunately small farmers, researchers, development agencies and businesses are getting on with the job of adapting to the climate shifts already being experienced in fields around the world.
While small farmers themselves are at the centre of these efforts, they still need more support to be able to produce enough to feed their families and make a decent living amid worsening extreme weather and other uncertainties linked to climate change, experts told an online debate hosted by Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) this week.
"Farmers have been adapting for centuries and so there is a lot they can already do," wrote Vincent Vadez, principal scientist with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India. "We can help by providing a larger basket of options (seeds, fertiliser, insurance schemes)."
Dyborn Chibonga, chief executive officer of the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM), said his colleagues require new technologies that can be adapted to their local knowledge and experiences.
"In our experience many adaptation programmes are starting to pay off (for) farmers within three years or so. However to have major impact at community level we need to do more together," he added. Malawian farmers, for example, are learning a lot from their peers in Zambia "as they have been at it longer than we have".
Farmers certainly are adapting, stressed Sonja Vermeulen, head of research for the CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), but "in the next few decades climate change will be taking all of us beyond previously experienced conditions, so we really do need partnerships to figure out the best options under very uncertain conditions".
Researchers and others should provide farmers "with all the support they can get in terms of information, different types of seeds, access to disaster relief and so on", she noted. "I think the principle should be increasing the basket of choices available for farmers as they adapt, rather than providing them with more and more constraints," she added.
One major theme of the debate was how to boost investment in "soft" adaptation measures - things like access to weather and climate information, training farmers' organisations in skills such as accounting, business planning and negotiating, and connecting farmers with local planning systems and financial services.
"In my view, these ‘soft’ adaptation processes are equally important as the ‘hard’, infrastructure-based ones," said Gernot Laganda, an IFAD climate change adaptation specialist.
On Wednesday, IFAD released a report which argued that helping smallholder farmers adapt to changing climate conditions and lower their risks will be crucial to ensuring food security in the future - and could pay for itself through avoided losses from disasters, better crop yields and higher incomes.
The debate panellists agreed on the importance of measuring the economic and financial benefits of things like switching to more resilient crops, adding new ways to make a living, and protecting farming communities and crops from floods and landslides.
For example, a study done for aid group CARE International found that in northeast Kenya, under the most realistic scenarios, investing $1 in small-scale adaptation generates between $1.45 and $3.03 of wealth accruing to communities, a CARE participant noted.
Most agreed, however, that it is difficult to convert the value of "soft" adaptation measures into dollars - and more work needs to be done to prove they are worth putting money into.
"To get investment in 'soft' adaptation, we need to convince donors - and the private sector - that it is local institutions that really matter for adaptation," said Vermeulen. "For us scientists, that means producing more solid evidence, while for farmers and rural communities it means getting organised and making more of a noise in public forums."
The relatively low profile of small farmers in policy and decision-making circles was widely lamented in the discussion.
Laganda said the situation of smallholder farmers needs "better visibility" in international climate negotiations. "They are often referred to as a vulnerable group, due to their livelihoods being intimately linked to climate-sensitive natural resources (soil, water, forests, etc). What rarely comes across in the international dialogue is that smallholder farmers are an important constituency to help us solve the climate puzzle."
"If provided with the right kind of support, smallholder farmers can help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural activities, restore degraded ecosystems and produce food for a growing population. This positioning needs to happen not only at the level of global climate negotiations, but also at the country level," he argued.
Vadez said negotiators must understand that climate change is already a problem on the ground. "We need to build smallholder farming resilience today," as well as providing longer-term support, he emphasised.
Asked how those involved in agriculture can ensure farmers get a fair share of climate finance - which is meant to rise to $100 billion a year by 2020 from around $10 billion now - some experts recommended presenting the problem as one of food security.
But the message that failing to support the world's farmers will lead to food shortages - with an estimated 60 percent rise in production needed to feed the world's growing population by 2050 - has yet to hit home with many governments, panellists observed.
"Perhaps the biggest obstacle to increasing spending on smallholder adaptation is that our political leadership are still in the process of waking up to just how much future food security will be hurt by climate change," Vermeulen said.
The hope is that the release of a major report on adaptation by the U.N. climate panel in March next year will impress on policy makers just how big the risks to small farmers really are, she added.
For more information, access the full discussion.