Smallholders in East Africa are embracing climate-resilient farming
Landmark survey finds adaptation to climate change taking root on small farms
Smallholders across East Africa are embracing climate-resilient farming approaches and technologies. They are adopting shorter-cycle and drought-resistant varieties, practising crop-rotation and intercropping, and planting more trees on their farms. Emerging from a survey of over 700 farming households in four East African countries—carried out by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)—the evidence also suggests that many of the changes in farming practices are marginal rather than transformational in nature. The study also indicates that high levels of food insecurity prevent many from making all of the changes needed to cope with a changing climate.
The baseline survey was designed to gauge the levels of food security among smallholder households, what actions and adaptation strategies farmers have already been pursuing, what information they are getting and how they are using it, and what services they have been receiving. The journal article “Are food insecure smallholder households making changes in their farming practices? Evidence from East Africa” recently published in Food Security, Vol 4 2012, draws from these baseline studies. Authored by, among others, ICRAF scientists Patti Kristjanson, Henry Neufeldt, Anja Gassner, Joash Mango and Richard Coe, the article examines whether households that have been introducing new practices are more likely to be food-secure than less innovative farming households.
“For generations, farmers and livestock keepers in East Africa have survived high levels of weather variability by testing and adopting new farming practices. As this variability increases, rainfall patterns shift, and average temperatures rise due to climate change, they may need to change faster and more extensively,” says Patti Kristjanson, Research Leader CCAFS at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Kristjanson, who co-led the comprehensive study added, “We are seeing that agricultural diversification strategies are key to improved household wellbeing. Improved access to good crops, livestock, soil, land and water management information, and options for different environments, are needed now more than ever.”
Although the studies revealed encouraging levels of uptake of certain coping mechanisms, they also showed that other proven agricultural productivity improvement strategies are not yet being adopted on a wide scale. These include practices such as mulching, using manure/compost, terracing, building ridges or other techniques that reduce water and soil organic matter losses. As demands on fresh-water resources multiply, farmers need to embrace ways in which they effectively use what they have—however, only 10 per cent have begun trying to store or manage agricultural water.
Food insecurity, which farm families at all five study sites had to contend with, was found to limit adaption. “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? It stands to reason that households struggling to feed their families throughout the year are not in a good position to invest in new practices that include higher costs and risks,” said Kristjanson. “Yet not adapting is certainly contributing to food insecurity. Food insecurity means lower adaptive capacity to deal with all kinds of change. So it is critical that we learn more about both the factors that enable and facilitate innovation, and how to lower the often hidden costs and barriers associated with changing agricultural practices.”