Smallholder farmers provide the key to tackling the climate crisis

Governments and international aid groups can support a new generation of climate resilient farmers by increasing financial assistance for smallholder-focused climate adaptation

Ban Ki-Moon
Friday 15 October 2021 11:19
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I grew up during the Korean War. Often, we had just enough to eat, but rarely enough to fill our stomachs. I was hungry all the time. Everyone was. This has given me a deep appreciation of where food comes from. Food and the food systems are paramount to all the challenges we face, especially for the people who work tirelessly to make sure we can feed ourselves and our loved ones – smallholder farmers.

Around the world, there are more than 500 million smallholder farms, where the land is less than two hectares. Moreover, smallholder farmers produce 80 per cent of food while the agriculture sector provides 15 per cent of GDP and 40 per cent of jobs on average in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Yet smallholder farmers, particularly women, often lack secure land tenure and access to markets and finance. They are also bearing the brunt of multiple crises of climate change, conflict, and economic downturn, as well as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, while at the same time being overlooked in global and national policy debates on these issues. In addition, they and their children are among those most likely to experience hunger and malnutrition, trapping yet another generation in poverty.

If we want a world free of hunger and poverty while adapting to and mitigating the climate crisis, we need to put smallholder farmers right at the centre of our efforts to tackle these issues and to “build back better”. Governments and international aid groups can support a new generation of climate resilient farmers by increasing financial assistance for smallholder-focused climate adaptation.

With less than 10 years left to meet the targets set in the Paris Climate Agreement and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), two of the legacies from my time as UN Secretary-General, I am calling for a new consensus with smallholder farmers that would drive a radical increase in financial aid, coherent policies, inclusive planning, technologies, and capacity-building for agricultural adaptation.

A new consensus with smallholder farmers to align policies, investments, and research across a wide range of stakeholders – governments, donors, civil society, private sector, and the farmers themselves – will ensure food security, protect biodiversity, and mitigate climate emissions at the same time.

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The Ceres2030 report which came out last year has laid out a roadmap on how we can achieve global goals to tackle the climate crisis and end hunger by 2030. It provides new evidence on what works to empower and support small farmers grow more nutritious and climate resilient crops, access irrigation and tap into social safety nets.

In addition, the recommendations from the international organisation Global Centre on Adaptation’s flagship report, “Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience”, are key in this regard: improving smallholder productivity, supporting farmers in managing risks from increased variability and climate shocks, addressing challenges of the most vulnerable and achieving policy coherence.

Data will also be a key tool for targeting interventions among smallholder farmers. Demand driven research and innovation are essential to address these specific needs. Only 10 per cent of countries have the capacity to collect or publish sufficiently disaggregated data on food systems. To channel resources efficiently we strongly rely on organisations like CGIAR to gather and translate data on the specific needs of smallholder farmers as environmental conditions continue to evolve.

According to a 2020 report by the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), smallholder farmers only receive 1.7 per cent of total global climate finance. Their actual financial need is estimated at $240bn (£175.2bn) per year globally, but the existing climate finance for them only reached $10bn (£7.3bn) in 2018. So, there is a huge gap.

Channeling more funding to agricultural research and innovation through global networks such as CGIAR, and through joint initiatives such as the Africa Adaptation Acceleration Program (AAAP) and Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4C) will accelerate the development of technologies and crops that can be adopted by even the poorest farmers.

More funding for smallholder farmers would ensure access to climate-resilient crops that can better cope with stresses such as drought, heat, flooding, salinity, and changes to the growing season. It will empower the excluded and the marginalised – women, indigenous peoples, pastoralists, fisherfolk, just to name a few – so they can produce the food we consume and the healthy diets we need with dignity and in a manner that is environmentally friendly and sustainable.

The world has done much to reduce hunger but figures over the last few years show hunger levels are on the rise again globally – the latest UN annual hunger report showed one in 10 people went to bed hungry in 2020, a jump of around 118 million from the previous year – and the climate crisis poses a mounting threat to food production and distribution.

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Food systems account for more than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to changes in the climate. Many nature-based adaptation solutions are also beneficial for mitigation and can provide one-third of the climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to keep global warming below 2°C.

Smallholder farmers are least equipped to adapt to the weather extremes that are fast becoming the norm. Given the right tools and support, however, they can play a pivotal role in helping us achieve the Paris Agreement goals by adopting crops and practices that adapt to the changing climate. Many small farms already grow a more diverse range of crops than large farms, which means they can also help reverse the shocking declines in nature and biodiversity while providing us with a varied, nutrient-rich food basket.

In the coming days, we will be celebrating World Food Day (16 October). It comes on the heels of the first ever UN Food Systems Summit and the Global Citizen Live festival where leaders made commitments to transform the world’s food systems, so they become more nutritious, equitable and sustainable. It is crucial that smallholder farmers are front and centre at the upcoming Cop26 and Nutrition for Growth Summit in November and December.

Let’s take these opportunities to make sure we achieve a new consensus to help the unsung heroes of our food systems – smallholder farmers. I call for increased investment in smallholder agriculture and bold and accelerated action on climate adaptation and resilience.

Ban Ki-Moon is co-chair of the Ban Ki-Moon Centre for Global Citizens and the 8th secretary-general of the United Nations

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