Building Resilient Climate Smart Agricultural Systems For Smallholder Farmers

Editor’s Note: This article was shared with us by One Acre Fund. One Acre Fund provides farm inputs, finance, and training to over 1.1 million families in six African countries per year, and reaches 1 million more families through partnerships.

Big harvests are the commonest measure of farming success. But yields form just part of the story. The long-term viability of this life-sustaining enterprise draws from its foundational components soil and the environment both of which are crucial elements of the climate system.

Agriculture and climate change are closely interrelated. On one hand, global warming affects agriculture and food production through changes in average temperatures, climate patterns such as heatwaves and rainfall, changes in the nature and patterns of pests and diseases, and carbon dioxide levels, among others. Agricultural production, in turn, contributes some 37% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as of 2016, according to the EU’s Scientific Advice Mechanism. Absent mitigation (which addresses the causes of climate change, including accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere), and adaptation measures (which addresses the impacts of climate change), this figure is expected to rise to 50% by 2050. 

At One Acre Fund, where we directly work with over one million smallholder farmers across seven countries in Eastern and Southern Africa, we understand that smallholders are on the front lines of tackling climate change on the globe. But, inevitably, as part of the agricultural ecosystem, they are also responsible for contributing to that change. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, farmers without sustainable avenues for increasing their yields are often compelled to “harvest” their natural environments through deforestation, converting natural land to farmland, and participating in other unsustainable agricultural practices such as monoculture which can lead to issues of soil degradation. This scenario creates a cycle of land breakdown and poor yields that, over time, accelerates the effects of climate change.

Happily, agriculture can also be harnessed to alleviate the effects on climate change. One place to start is to significantly increase the amount of capital available for climate-smart investments in agriculture. In particular, Green Finance initiatives, which increase the level of financial flows from the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors to sustainable development priorities, offer avenues to better manage environmental risks associated with agriculture, through providing the funds needed to support activities that bring lasting, positive results beyond food production. 

One Acre Fund

In the picture: One Acre Fund Climate-sustainable ecosystem. Photo Credit: One Acre Fund

Build resilience to climate change

Yet, mitigation efforts do not should not translate into reducing agricultural production to lessen GHG emissions. On the contrary, food production must be ramped up to feed the world’s ballooning population, which the United Nations projects will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. We must ask ourselves, how do we attain food security and, at the same time, take care of the environment?

One option is climate-smart agriculture (CSA), which FAO defines to encompass the pillars of food security, climate change adaptation, and mitigation. CSA contributes to food security by enabling sustainable yield increments while also building the resilience of communities to climate change.

One Acre Fund’s initial model was designed to ensure farmers succeed in seasons of ‘average’ rainfall. However, signs in recent years point to increasing incidences of erratic rainfall. Given that smallholder farming is rain-fed, irregular rainfall threatens productivity and consequently impedes our ability to generate positive impact. Our CSA strategy aims to help farmers maintain their productivity, even during challenging weather. We do this by layering on new climate-smart products and services that also generate income impact and enhance a farm’s long-term sustainability. For example, trees provide long-term, stable assets; crop diversification ensures protection even in years where one crop suffers; poultry provides an alternative food source; insurance protects farmers against weather shocks. 

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In our experience, mitigation and adaptation, go hand in hand. To engage in agricultural practices that focus on climate change adaptation without working to mitigate GHG emissions due to global food systems is to assume a business-as-usual model, which can only maintain or worsen our currently unsustainable trends.

The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2014), which contextualizes the state of knowledge concerning the science of climate change, reports, “If no further efforts are made to lessen greenhouse gas emissions, their (emissions) growth is expected to continue, spurred by growth in world population and economic activities.”

Expand funding support

At One Acre Fund, our agroforestry work has emerged as a powerful CSA intervention and an incredibly effective way for smallholder farmers to build financial and environmental assets. In our case, a $0.10 seedling, properly cared for, can grow into a $14-55 tree after five years, while preventing erosion and improving soil health, offsetting deforestation, and sequestering carbon. Compelling results from our impact and adoption studies have led us to prioritize a rapid agroforestry scale-up across all countries where we operate.

Although often overlooked, mitigation ought to be at the core of climate change adaptation measures currently in place and those planned for the future. Enhancing the capacity of individual farmers to take care of their soils, including empowering them to practice sustainable farming, can simplify efforts to address climate change in agriculture. In the picture: Sunset in Africa. Photo Credit: Unsplash

But whereas the policy framework exists, adaptation goals cannot be adequately attained if agriculture fails to get the funding support it requires. Studies have demonstrated that agricultural adaptation and mitigation are technically and economically feasible. As well, research has identified several workable adaptation potentials, including mature and scalable technologies, such as climate change monitoring systems, crop diversification, soil management, and ecological pest control; as well as management methods, including tree planting. Nevertheless, significant gaps in funding exist, which hamper the implementation of agricultural adaptation. Funding, either as climate finance or in the form of ‘traditional’ agricultural capital, is critical to materialize these potentials.

Now is the time to craft and implement mitigation options. Agriculture is critical to the sustenance of present and future worlds, and we must build global resilience for all of our communities. Our efforts must combine activities that promote and emphasize adaptation, mitigation, and sustainability if we are to make meaningful progress.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own, not those of

About the Author /

One Acre Fund directly provides farm inputs, finance, and training to over 1.1 million families in six African countries per year, and reaches 1 million more families through partnerships. The organization will more than double in size in the next five years and aims to be the most impactful distribution network for life-improving goods in rural Sub-Saharan Africa.

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