How low-tech farming innovation can make African farmers climate-resilient


Scientists, politicians and the Pope are not the only ones calling for action on climate change these days. Farmers are observing changes in rainfall, temperature and other patterns in weather that have spurred them into shifting their farming methods. In fact, while climate change is not a source of scientific contention, how to farm in the future is a hot topic in the scientific realm.

As a social scientist with a background in soil science, usually working in collaboration with other scientists as part of a transdisciplinary approach, I’ve studied different agricultural methods with small-scale farmers in Africa. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve found that certain low-cost and low-technology techniques, combined with community-led education, offer the most promise.

Farming, it turns out, produces high levels of greenhouse gas emissions – fertilisers, tilling soil, pesticides and livestock production are responsible for about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, increased global temperatures are expected to have dramatic impacts on our current abilities to produce food. In Africa, some scientists predict crop yields could be reduced by 20% or more unless changes are made.

Some call for “climate smart” agriculture, which sounds a little bit like more and improved. There could be a number of improvements: fertilisers and pesticides, but applied with greater efficiency; cell phones for farmers in poor countries to get up to date weather advice; genetically-modified seeds that are more drought-resistant.

To be sure, the conventional cocktail of fertiliser and herbicides will help some farmers increase food production in the short term — if farmers can afford these inputs.

For many poor farmers, though, such methods would only increase their costs and debt, making it harder for them to compete and leaving them in a more vulnerable situation.

Such was the story of the last Green Revolution from the 1930s to 1960s. The environmental costs of these technical improvements are well known — increased water pollution, reduced biodiversity, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. So not really a “smart” solution at all.

Others call for “agroecological” methods — farming practices that mimic nature by adding organic material to soil, planting trees on cropped fields and using natural enemies to attack insect pests. Largely underfunded, this is nonetheless a growing scientific field.

Studies have also shown that agroecological methods can build resilience in the face of climate change. Hurricane Mitch, one of the five most powerful hurricanes of the century in the Caribbean, caused over 10,000 deaths and over $US6.7 billion in damage in 1998. But it came attached with a small blessing: a chance to see whether farm techniques mattered for recovery. Scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz found that farmers using agroecological methods before the hurricane had more vegetation, lower soil erosion and less economic loss.

Other studies examined the impacts of different farming practices on the response to hurricanes and droughts in Mexico, Tanzania, Sweden and Cuba, all of which found that agroecological methods helped farms withstand damage and recover faster).

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