One of the biggest challenges faced by smallholder farmers today is climate change, and the increasingly variable weather patterns that result from it. While farmers in some tropical regions may benefit from rising temperatures, the majority of the world's smallholders will face increased hardship as a result of warmer weather and uncertain rainfall. Future food security, particularly for developing countries, will depend on how populations react to and cope with the challenges presented by climate change. A new study by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) finds that in East Africa, smallholder farmers are starting to embrace the technologies and practices needed to adapt to a changing climate - but hunger and poverty present formidable stumbling blocks.
Are Food Insecure Smallholder Households Making Changes in Their Farming Practices? Evidence from East Africa is based on a survey of over 700 farming households in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. The study finds that smallholders in the region have made great strides in adopting a wide range of strategies to improve crop and livestock production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Agricultural diversification strategies have been most successfully adopted: Fifty-five percent of the surveyed households have utilized at least one shorter-cycle crop variety, while 56 percent have adopted at least one drought-tolerant variety. Additionally, 50 percent of households have planted trees on their land, helping cut down on erosion and and improve water and soil quality. Livestock management practices have also improved, with 34 percent of households reducing their herd size and 48 percent engaging in better management practices such as growing their own higher quality feed. This last practice has the additional advantage of improving the diets of the animals, thereby reducing the methane produced by the livestock and further cutting down on emissions.
Despite these advances, however, the study also finds that several important strategies have failed to take root in the region. Only 25 percent of households utilize manure or compost, and only 16 percent and 10 percent, respectively, engage in advanced soil and water management practices. The reason for this limited adoption may lie in the vicious cycle of food insecurity itself. Adopting new agricultural and livestock management techniques involves both higher investment and higher risk; for households already struggling just to feed themselves, these two prerequisites often add up to an impossible proposition. However, not adopting new techniques to help mitigate the impact of climate change will only exacerbate existing food insecurity, leading to a downward spiral of hunger and poverty. The study's authors hope that their findings, as well as future CCAFS surveys, will help uncover the factors behind agricultural innovation and determine ways to lower the costs and barriers for smallholders.
The study survey is part of a larger CCAFS effort covering 5,040 households in 252 villages across 36 sites in 12 countries in East Africa, West Africa, and South Asia. The program aims to better understand smallholders' food security situations, what actions and adaptation strategies are currently being pursued, what information farmers are getting and how they are using it, and what services farmers are receiving.