Another 35 million people will face food insecurity due to climate change impacts on agriculture by 2030 . According to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), climate change is already and will continue to affect every aspect of food production, creating the toughest challenge especially for small farmers in developing countries.
To illustrate the scale of the challenge, it suffices to look only at the production of the second most traded good worldwide – coffee – which is dependent on more than 60 countries around the equator and their specific climate conditions, that are about to change with the increase of temperatures and drought. For example, Indonesia is at risk of losing up to 37% of its Arabica coffee plantations by 2050 if farmers do not find a new way to tackle the problem .
What makes these predictions even worse is that the majority of farmers are dependent entirely on the income generated from their harvest and already live with limited financial resources for most of the year. Therefore, they rely on consistent yields and it is difficult for them to make up for any unexpected losses.
Fortunately, farmers do not have to helplessly watch their harvest drop year by year as climate change makes its progress. They have a choice to change their farming methods to combat some of the negative effects by employing climate-smart practices.
The following examples represent strategies farmers can adopt to protect their livelihoods and help secure global food supply under dramatically changing environmental conditions.
Boosting natural carbon storage
Perhaps the most logical step when combating climate change is to aim at reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, and luckily for farmers, the most important medium for their work, soil, has a great capacity to capture and store atmospheric carbon.
One of the key principles of climate-smart agriculture is to treat the soil with the same care as crops. Because healthy soil does not only sequester carbon, but it goes hand in hand with improved quality of produce, richness in flavor, and it helps build up the natural resistance to disease outbreaks. Besides keeping plants healthy, well treated soil holds moisture for a longer period, which reduces the need to irrigate during dry spells.
A perfect example of climate-smart soil management is converting to no-till farming. It is a method of soil conservation that reduces erosion and prevents the loss of nutrients from the soil. By leaving the soil undisturbed, its capacity to store carbon and moisture increases, which further multiplies benefits of this method.
Bringing life back
The progress of climate change can be stalled by planting more trees on farms, as they use carbon dioxide to photosynthesize. Trees also perform many other useful services on farms. They provide shade, habitat and fruits. They shield fields from wind, reduce soil erosion, distribute nutrients and filter water.
Considering that agriculture expands deeper into unique forest ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest, it doesn’t sound like such a bad idea to replant as many trees on farms as possible to reverse some of the damage. In fact, about 80% of deforestation happens because of agriculture. And the destruction of forests makes up about 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions around the globe.
An interesting concept that has proven to be climate friendly is silvopasture. It involves livestock grazing in a forested area. Through this practice, ecological benefits of trees are used to raise healthy livestock, while increasing biodiversity and natural resistance on a farm. The role of trees in silvopasture is much more than just providing shade and timber. They promote soil regeneration, preventing its degradation from grazing, which in turn makes richer pasture for livestock and even stores more carbon as mentioned above . Considering all the benefits, this system works well for the farmer and climate change mitigation.
Returning to practices of our ancestors
Numerous studies have proven that organic farming methods reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 40% through lower use of fossil fuels and conservation of biodiversity on a farm . Primarily, it is because organic farms build on natural principles to boost their yield. And it is no secret that organic soils have higher productivity than conventionally farmed ones.
Even though switching entirely to organic farming would be a better option for the environment, farmers do not have to go fully organic to reap some benefits of this method. Similar changes can be achieved just through practicing a method of selective manual weeding. By weeding crops manually, farmers save money on chemical herbicides and lower their need to use fuel-demanding machinery.
An additional benefit of this method is the possibility to select which weeds are harmful to crops from those that recycle nutrients. By leaving these to grow along with crops, farmers naturally improve the fertility of the soil, as well as increase the level of organic matter. And no farm is better prepared for weather fluctuations than a farm with healthy soils that nourish highly resilient crops.
Water is farmer’s gold
Access to water is as important as having a sunlight when it comes to growing plants. As climate change makes its progress, droughts are expected to become even more frequent in most of the places where agriculture is practiced. Since agriculture uses over 70% of freshwater resources, farmers have a great responsibility to preserve as much water through their practice as possible . They can achieve that by adopting some of the water conservation measures that ensure that the right amount of water is available at the critical stages of a plant growth.
Except for boosting soil moisture retention by planting cover crops or using no-till methods, there are other techniques that help. One of them is planting native bushes and keeping rich vegetation on the borders of the fields to reduce runoff. An alternative way is to grow crops that are not as water intensive and will not require such a high water input.
These examples are just a brief demonstration of how farmers can change their approach to be better prepared for treacherous impacts of climate change. The key concept common to all of them is to reinforce the healthy balance between natural components, which will in turn increase the resilience of a farm because half of the work will be done by the natural processes that take place in prospering ecosystems. Building resilience of our agricultural systems is important for our continuous existence and should become an ongoing project of all farmers under any conditions.