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The Farmer’s Dilemma: Climate Change, Food Security, and Human Mobility

“Most of the world’s poor are farmers; they share the same profession and the same challenges,” said One Acre Fund’s Stephanie Hanson at a recent Wilson Center event on small-scale farming, climate change, food security, and migration. They are tasked with growing enough food to support their families with only tenuous access to land and natural resources, the most basic of tools, and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns to deal with.

Date & Time

May. 7, 2013
12:00pm – 2:00pm ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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“Most of the world’s poor are farmers; they share the same profession and the same challenges,” said One Acre Fund’s Stephanie Hanson at a recent Wilson Center event on small-scale farming, climate change, food security, and migration. They are tasked with growing enough food to support their families with only tenuous access to land and natural resources, the most basic of tools, and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns to deal with.

How can small-scale farmers navigate those hurdles and achieve food security? Kevin Henry, the project coordinator for CARE International’s Where the Rain Falls campaign; Susan Bradley, the division director for USAID’s Bureau for Food Security, which implements the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative; and ECSP consultant Kathleen Mogelgaard joined Hanson earlier this month to discuss that question.

Simple Tools, Tremendous Opportunities

Many small-scale farmers rely on basic tools, minimal technology, and rainfall to cultivate their crops, which exacerbates their vulnerability to changing weather patterns and other stressors that affect food security. But, Hanson said, this vulnerability also represents a “tremendous opportunity,” because small improvements, like better access to seed and fertilizer, can yield outsized benefits.

The experience of Carolyn Lunani, a farmer that works with One Acre Fund in western Kenya, demonstrates how simple interventions can benefit small-scale, food-insecure farming households, said Hanson. Through her partnership with One Acre Fund, Lunani received seed for local crops and fertilizer on credit, and was trained to use both to maximize crop yields. She also received crop insurance through the Fund, which triggers payments when local weather stations show insufficient rainfall during key parts of the planting season.

Since joining the Fund in 2009, Lunani has gone from growing 1 bag of maize on one acre of land to growing 80 bags on three acres, said Hanson. She also bought a cow, built and owns four rental properties, and is paying for her children to attend nursery school and secondary school.

Lunani’s story underscores what Bradley considers to be a fundamental aspect of adaptation. “We consider empowering women to be at the heart of adapting to and facilitating household adaptation to climate change,” she said. “Almost every social outcome in a household has greater positive impact when a woman is empowered to be controlling resources and influencing decisions within that household.”

Boosting Yields for Improved Nutrition?

While greater agricultural productivity yields clear benefits for farmers, Bradley cautioned that bigger yields aren’t a cure-all. Feed the Future’s two goals – improving agricultural productivity and boosting nutrition – underscore the fact that food security is about quality of food as much as it is about quantity, she said. But linking the two can be challenging.

“We’re making a big bet in the initiative that actually improving agricultural productivity will improve and increase nutritional outcomes,” said Bradley. “One of the things we’re wrestling with is how to make sure that that actually happens, because it will not happen just because we wish it to. The evidence is pointing largely to the fact that unless there are deliberate ties between those two objectives, then you will not in fact have the impacts on nutrition that you desire.”

Making Food Security “Climate Smart”

Against the backdrop of less predictable weather patterns, “we’re going to have to be building resilience and adaptive capacity in agriculture,” said Bradley. “Sustainable food security, to me, means it has to beclimate-smart food security.”

That kind of integration is already happening across Africa, where small-scale farming is most prevalentand climate changes are expected to be most damaging, both through planned interventions and farmer-driven efforts. In Kenya and Rwanda, Hanson said that One Acre Fund encourages farmers to plant trees by providing them with seeds and training. In addition to creating small carbon sinks, the trees act as a sort of “long-term savings plan” for landowners, who can harvest them for lumber over time. That economic incentive, said Hanson, “gets at one of the key issues” of climate mitigation, which is securing buy-in for long-term environmental programs when “at the end of the day, [farmers’] primary concern is ‘how can we make enough money for our families.’”

These incentives are important, said Bradley. For example, in Niger and Mali, where deforestation is major challenge, up until the 1990s, timber laws gave ownership to every tree to the government, which gave farmers little incentive to keep trees on their property alive. Once landowners finally had control over the trees growing on their own property, “all of a sudden the value of that tree shot up,” said Bradley. “People have been re-greening, re-foresting on their own, without the help of any kind of project now, because the value to them is apparent.”

Migration As Adaptation

For extremely poor and landless households, agricultural interventions do little to improve their food security. Instead, these households are “most often basically forced to use migration as a risk management strategy,” said Henry.

In the Janjgir-Ghampa District of India’s central Chhattisgarh State, where 24 percent of households don’t own the land they work, farmers rely on a single crop of rice to feed their families for the year. Increased variability during the rainy season has left these farmers extremely susceptible to crop failure and resulting food insecurity. At the same time, population growth coupled with traditional inheritance practices mean that even the farmers who do own land have to feed bigger families with increasingly smaller tracts, according to recent CARE research. Seasonal migration to urban areas remains one of the few ways these farmers can hope to earn enough to feed their families when the monsoons fail to deliver.

Migration – whether seasonal or permanent – is often seen “as a failure of adaptation,” said Mogelgaard, but “we can begin to think of migration as an adaptive response.” Seeing migration as a positive response rather than a negative one has significant implications for development and aid experts, who need to start thinking about how they can “create enabling environments…in which [migration] would really contribute to resilience and greater development outcomes for communities that are at risk.”

A Food Security Framework Is a Cross-Sectoral Framework

The effects of climate change “are completely cross-cutting,” said Bradley, “and will in fact impact almost everything that we are trying to do at Feed the Future.”

Given the vast complexity of the challenge at hand, said Henry, there is a need “to get out of our silos, if you will, and to get beyond thinking of food security over here, and climate change here, and sustainable development over here.” Working across sectors also means doing more to strengthen natural disaster risk management capacity, from building up institutions and networks at the regional and national levels to educating farmers and empowering women at the community and household levels, he said.

Whether it is protecting the inherent value of forests and soil quality, migrating during dry seasons, or accessing better technology to boost crop yields, farmers are already driving solutions to the interconnected problems of food insecurity and climate change. Supporting and better understanding these responses could go a long way towards improving food security in a changing, growing world, said Bradley. There is a clear need to understand “how that adaptation is occurring, and then trying to prepare people in a way that actually benefits the greatest number.”

Drafted by Kate Diamond, edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker


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Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

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