Ibadan, Nigeria — Development advocates and professionals are very keen on harnessing the power of agriculture to promote the cause of climate change these days. And rightly so, because agriculture is both a major emitter of greenhouse gases and so a potential force for mitigation, and because billions of people will need to eat, and so adaptation is an absolute necessity.
That said, it's actually quite hard to achieve lasting consensus on the ground. For a plethora of reasons, smallholders in developing countries all too often do not have the resources or incentives to commit to the transformation to sustainable agriculture that scientists know is needed.
However, these challenges can be faced and overcome. Doing so requires that experts listen closely to what people are saying.
The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture is highly engaged in promoting climate-sensitive farming practices and full-fledged Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA). Our experience in the field has given us the opportunity to learn why some useful adaptive techniques struggle to take hold.
Some examples from our work in Northern Uganda are noteworthy.
For example, some agroforestry initiatives and other projects geared to using perennial crops fail to achieve traction among women farmers because they do not own land. The absence of equitable tenure rights leads many women naturally to prefer annual crops that can be harvested in the short term.
Another issue is that while perhaps new and improved seeds have been developed to bolster adaptation to a changing climate in a given locale, it is often not the case that an adequate distribution system is in place. Farmers lament that inputs arrive too late, or that they cost too much and no credit or seed loaning system is available.
It is important to realize that what often appears as farmers' resistance to change is a fairly well-grounded assessment of the risks and uncertainties that smallholders face. Indeed, when they see a successful technique work over time, they are usually quite interested in adopting it. But, in the absence of a steady and reliable safety net, short-term results are a requirement, which can lead to slower take-up of practices such as no-till that boost long-term soil fertility but may dent present yields.
It's also true that culinary preferences matter. In Uganda, farmers prefer the aroma of local Sindani rice to the Nerica variety that offers improved performance in upland areas. But here, too, it turns out that Sindani is less damaged by birds, so their rationale is on solid ground. It is only through dialogue that such factors emerge.
IITA has sought to foster and tap such dialogues through its leading role in Policy Action for Climate Change Adaptation (PACCA) projects in Uganda and Tanzania, which seek to prioritize CSA practices with local stakeholders.
One of the core features of our efforts, much of which is done in partnership with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Bioversity International and local partners, is what we call the learning alliance model. After several years of engagement, we are harvesting useful knowledge.
First, and unsurprisingly, it is essential to be reminded by farmers of what their priorities are when asked to consider a change. Yield, income, labor, cost, inputs, equipment, and appropriate farm size are all top priorities.
A set of on-farm demonstrations done in Nwoya district in 2015 allowed for more specific feedback, which we culled from a farmers' "reflection workshop" organized earlier this year.
While farmers noted that the learning process itself represented a significant cost, due to the risk of crop theft or stray animals entering fields while they travelled long distances to reach training sessions, many CSA practices won plaudits from smallholders. These included: improved varieties, which tend to yield more, mature earlier and resist disease; row planting, which requires fewer seeds and facilitates weeding and harvesting as well as pest control; and minimum tillage, which was seen as a labor saver requiring little specialized skills.
Greater awareness of the risk of climate change would help give more balance to farmers' concerns. Farmers are increasingly aware of depleted water sources, fewer bird species, lower water tables and other impacts of climate change, but such factors can't be tackled by a smallholder acting alone and require collective action.
One intriguing idea, which emerged at our recent Learning Alliance reflection meeting in Tanzania, is for the government to set up an agency to address issues of climate change in the same way that special committees were set up in the past to deal with HIV/AIDS.
National platforms with that level of focus are warranted given the magnitude and full spectrum of risks posed by climate change. But the key issue is to make sure they are capillary and local.
The Learning Alliance model is promising in that regard.
Bringing together different partners drawn from policy makers, academic, research organizations, civil society, the private sector and farming communities themselves, the platform has facilitated the sharing of information, knowledge and experiences. They have retained smallholder interest, which is the gold standard for such initiatives.
And increasingly we see local participants in Learning Alliances advocate effectively for deeper plans, the kind that can win funding from international sources, allowing them to last longer and clinch the loyalty of farmers who buy in to the campaign. In short, they are embryonic institutions based on participation and, as such, a replicable approach to tackling the great challenge for climate-smart agriculture practices - sustainable implementation.