Examining Climate Change Effects on Small-Scale Agriculture
This post is written by Bert Visser and Bhramar Dey.
Climate change poses significant social, economic, environmental, and health challenges at a global level. Agricultural production and rural livelihoods are particularly impacted by climate change, which alters agro-ecosystems and affects crop biodiversity. These changes in turn cause disruptions and reductions in food security. A collaboration between Catholic Relief Services (through the USAID-funded Feed the Future Global Supporting Seed Systems for Development Activity) and Oxfam Novib (through the Sida funded SD=HS program) led to a field study in five countries in 2022 to elaborate on climate change's (CC) effects on crop and seed production that smallholder farmers experienced, and coping strategies they applied to deal with these effects.
The countries involved in the study were Ethiopia, Guatemala, Niger, Uganda and Zambia, exhibiting highly diverse agro-ecosystems (Table 1). The study involved focus group discussions (FGDs) using a structured questionnaire with separate male and female groups of three to five communities in each of the five countries. Interviews were carried out by staff of partner organizations of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Oxfam Novib (ON), who were also responsible for selection of the communities involved.
Climate Change Effects
Whereas climate change has been measured in detail across the globe, this study focused on which effects smallholder farmers, who are also seed producers of various crops, experienced most. All focus groups reported climate change effects. Most reported effects concerned erratic rainfall, associated with late onset of rains, intermittent prolonged droughts, and shortened crop growing seasons. As secondary effects, increased incidence of (new) pests and diseases, irregular harvests, and reduced soil moisture were mentioned. It seemed that increased incidence of pests and diseases either stemmed from new weather conditions or from adoption of new crops and varieties with unknown pest and diseases susceptibility. Additional effects included increased flood propensities, and higher day and night temperatures. These effects in turn resulted in a decrease of suitable farmland and/or in reduced harvests. As may be expected, the performance of crops and varieties differed markedly regarding the impact of CC effects.
More extended food insufficiency resulted, expressed in smaller or lesser meals, poor food quality and/or less dietary diversity over prolonged periods of the year. Farmers reported that these trends also caused negative health effects. Moreover, they had to buy more food in the market. In addition to food security, seed security was also affected. Less seed could be saved on-farm from their own harvests, sometimes seed was consumed as food, whereas seed storage was increasingly affected by pest and disease pressure. Farmers were also confronted with higher seed prices or with only the availability of seed of less preferred varieties.
Weather forecasts have become less reliable, and traditional signals (such as in weather events, and in the behavior of specific plant and animal species) are no longer useful because of changing weather conditions, while public sector weather forecasting was often not sufficiently precise enough over neighboring geographies. Traditional weather forecasting signals became outdated under new climate conditions, and the availability of local food plants grown in the (semi-) wild were affected. Farmers reported lesser abundance under new climatic conditions. It was also reported that as a result, knowledge of local food plants was slowly disappearing.
Major Coping Strategies in Smallholder Communities
All men and women focus groups reported (1) a shift away from the cultivation of traditional staple crops towards alternative field crops, (2) a clear trend towards the development of home gardens, producing vegetable crops and high-value cash crops (e.g., coffee, quat), (3) more reliance on livestock rearing, and (4) an increase in off-farm labor where viable. Moreover, within-crop diversity was heavily affected. Changes involved primarily a shift from traditional to modern varieties offering traits responding to new climatic conditions, in particular a shift from long-duration to short-duration varieties, and to varieties with an overall better tolerance to pests and diseases. Adoption of modern varieties often also resulted in a higher use of fertilizers and pesticides.
Farmers often reported that as secondary effects of these shifts, they bought more seed in the market and/or from government sources, whereas they also sold more produce as well as seed in the market. Additionally, farmers reported a poorer quality of animal products because of insufficient pasture, high price of animal feed and drinking water remaining available. The changes towards home gardening, livestock rearing, and off-farm labor also meant a shift in burden of labor (male migration, women’s role in home gardening, kids charged with keeping animals).
In addition to changes in crops and varieties, the relation between farmlands and home gardens and the balance between crop production and livestock rearing, all being related to the suitability of the genetic makeup of the species involved, involved adapted agronomic practices. Changes in practices often mentioned were a postponement of sowing dates (to ensure proper rainfall at the time of seed germination), early soil preparation, and an increased propensity of keeping seed behind for a second sowing. The adoption of minimum soil tillage, increased use of (organic) fertilizers and mulching, better water harvesting, and the engagement in agroforestry activities were also mentioned. Some of these trends have been promoted in many development projects, may have also occurred independently of climate change, and simply have become more prominent and urgent because of CC as an independent effect.
Finally, next to crop and variety shifts and agronomic changes, socio-economic changes were also reported. Less financial and labor investments were made in growing traditional staple crops and more in the production of cash crops. A higher reliance on local food markets with fellow farmers, shops, and vendors offering food and seed was also reported, although some groups reported a lack of cash to buy from local markets. In Niger and Ethiopia, an increased dependence on food aid was noticed. Also, some farmers experienced new income sources from market sales (vegetables and other cash crops). Increased market exposure also resulted in stronger interactions with private sector. Migration of mostly male community members to domestic urban and peri-urban areas and internationally (especially in case of Niger and Guatemala) resulted in added income and to new disparities within the communities (families with and without income from migrants).
All changes in practices and coping behavior were strongly supported by external stakeholders. Support was obtained from farmer field schools, farmer-to-farmer networks, community seed banks, other community organizations and nongovernment organizations, as well as local, regional and national governments and the private sector. Such support included provision of trainings and demonstrations, seeds, other farm inputs and technologies, processing equipment and storage facilities, as well as marketing support and access to cash, credit, and work. No clear linkages between type of support and type of stakeholder appeared.
Following are the key takeaways from the study:
- Shift to home gardens/vegetables and cash crops is observed in most farming systems;
- Stronger reliance on livestock serving as “liquid asset” in all cases;
- Shift from local to modern varieties that are more adapted to novel stress conditions;
- Increased market interactions; climate change creating an added effect;
- No clear difference between men and women when it comes to perception of climate threats and coping strategies;
- Saving seed on-farm remains an important strategy: building resilience in local informal seed systems remains highly important; and
- Creating and/or increasing sustainable off-farm income allows meeting of increasing food, schooling and medicine bills.
Table I. Seed Producer Groups and Locations.
|Ethiopia Seed Producer Groups||Location|
|Atate Seed Producer and Marketing Cooperative||Sidama Region, Hawas Zuria District|
|Hansha Halabicho Seed Cooperative||SNNP Region, Halaba Zone, Halaba District|
|Illu Itiya Farmers’ Seed Producer Association||Oromia Region, North Shewa Zone, Wachale District|
|Sabadar Abana Kalo Farmers’ Seed Producer Association||Amahara Region, West Gajam Zone, Sbadar Peasant Association, Wemberima District|
|Shirinto Seed Producer Cooperative||SNNP Region, Gurghe Zone, Mareko District|
|Guatemala Seed Producer Groups||Location|
|Agricultores del Rio Selegua y Banco de Semillas||Quilinco, Chiantla, Huehuetenango|
|Buena Vista Chimchim FFS||Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Huehuetenango|
|FFS Cabic||Cabic, Petatán, Huehuetenango|
|Niger Seed Producer Groups||Location|
|Bunkassa Noma||Guidan Roumdji, commune Chadakori, village of Kouroungousaou|
|Cigaban Mata Radi/Niyar Aiki||Madarounfa commune of Safo, village of Riadi|
|Himma||Guidan Roumdji, commune of Sabon Machi, |
village de Sabon Machi
|OP Yada Iri||Guidan Roumdji, commune of Chadakori, village of Chadakori|
|Uganda Seed Producer Groups||Location|
|Aloet Farmer Field School||Soroti district, Oculoik sub-county, Aloet village|
|Golimori Farmer Field School||Adjumani district, Ofua sub-county, Subbe parish, Subbe central village|
|Loyo Kwoo Local Seed Business||Nwoya District, Piminyai village|
|Olusai Aloet Farmer Field School||Soroti District, Eastern|
|Ponjiri Ene Lero Farmer Field School||Westnile, Nebbii District|
|RWOHFED Farmer Field School||Adjumani district, Pakele sub-county|
|Zambia Seed Producer Groups||Location|
|Katwiya FFS||Chirundu district|
|Kayanga FFS||Shibuyunji district|
|Muvwela FFS||Chikankata district|
|Tigwilizane FFS||Rufunsa district|