Family Farmers Struggle to Keep Up with the Warm-Up World

It is predicted that rising world temperatures will create more hunger and inequality among small producers who grow a large part of the world’s food – will they be able to adapt?

ROME – The young African farmers Mavis Gofa and Andrew Goodman had a very different upbringing – Gofa grew up on a 2.5 hectare farm and could not afford to complete high school, while Goodman’s family cultivated 275 hectares and educated him in Britain. .

But they share the same big dream.

Both want a better life for the families who run half a billion small farms in the world, many of which remain poverty-stricken, despite the production of about 80% of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, according to the United Nations.

This is a difficult question, as climate change is making the lives of millions of small farmers even more difficult – with scientists predicting frequent and intense floods, droughts and storms.

In the 25-year-old Mutoko in northeastern Zimbabwe, the yield of her maize fed by rain is declining as the start of the planting season is delayed from mid-October to the end of December.

In 2016, her farm produced about 700 kg of maize, but this year she gained only 500 kg, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Goodman, 24, also struggles on his family farm outside Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, which grows seeds for crops such as maize, soybeans and groundnuts, and works closely with about 5,000 smallholder farmers each season.

The start of the rainy season has shifted from October to mid-November, older farmers told Goodman.

When showers occur, they often become heavy, destroying crops and destroying the fertile layer of soil. It forces farmers to buy more inputs such as fertilizer to keep the yield, but the higher costs then push it back into poverty, he added.

A recent study led by University College London (UCL) showed that such experiences can spread widely as the planet warms, with significant implications for hunger and inequality.

It looked at 18 crops – including those grown mainly in developing countries such as cassava, peanut and rapeseed – which make up 70% of the world’s crop area and about 65% of its intake.

The study found that the harvest of important crops – such as legumes in West Africa, rice in India and Pakistan and wheat in Sudan – would decline if the temperature rose 1 degree Celsius above today’s levels, even without other consequences such as floods.

Globally, the average temperature so far has risen a little more than 1C since pre-industrial times, although the change varies in different parts of the world – and the forecast is that global warming will rise to 3C or more this century.

The study also said that countries where rising temperatures have the most negative effects are already below average yields and are struggling to feed their citizens, shifting their resilience and ability to adapt to additional heating.

Poor countries face a triple blow with submerged food production, higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide-reducing nutrients in crops and a consequent increase in hunger and malnutrition, warned the study’s lead author Paolo Agnolucci.

About 690 million people, or one in 11, went without eating enough in 2019, and the United Nations has warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could add another 132 million in 2020.

The social implications of even 1C additional warming could be ‘massive’, added Agnolucci, associate professor at UCL.


Some developed countries that enjoy high yields of crops such as potatoes, soybeans and maize – for example in Northern Europe – are likely to benefit if the climate warms by another 1C, the study reads.

But the climate impacts are becoming even harder to ignore here, other scientists have noted.

Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, an associate professor at Cornell University who studies the historical effects of climate change on agriculture, pointed to the unusual and brutal spring floods in 2019 in the American Middle East that flooded large fields.

In Italy, where olive oil is part of the country’s cultural heritage, olive farmers like Gianni Proietti say they have been plagued by climate disasters.

Proietti’s 50-hectare farm in the picturesque Umbrian hills of central Italy has had more frequent and worse plant diseases and extreme weather such as spring frosts and hailstorms over the past few years.

The increase in average seasonal temperature and humidity is to blame, says the 62-year-old, who now grows cereals, legumes, grapes and olive trees.

If he insures his crops against weather damage, it helps him cope with the losses, but the most effective support is to stop and stop climate change, he added.


As global climate action moves slowly, many smallholder farmers in Africa are diversifying crops to adapt to the deteriorating weather extremes and changing climate patterns.

Gofa in Zimbabwe is now concentrating on sorghum and millet, which are more drought-resistant than maize, and receiving training from international charity ActionAid on environmentally friendly farming techniques.

Yet she has many problems. Digging reefs into the ground so that it contains more water is labor intensive because she does not have equipment, she said.

The barriers in Malawi to Goodman include obtaining affordable quality seed for soil-friendly crops such as legumes, and reliable information on the weather, greener farming practices, crop performance and market prices.

He works with aid organizations to address these issues, but says the situation is ‘unfair’ to poor farmers.

“How do you tell someone to fight climate change if they are not contributing to a fraction of climate change?”

Millions of smallholder farmers have “unfortunately low access” to mobile networks and the Internet, which puts digital technologies that can help them out of reach, a study said this month.

Less than 40% of farms smaller than a hectare have 3G or 4G cellular services, and the cost of data remains unaffordable in many parts of Africa, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture said.

The UCL-led study said the expansion of irrigation and the increasing use of fertilizers and pesticides could protect yields, but it would entail environmental costs, from growing water scarcity to nitrogen oxide emissions through fertilizers.

The only long-term solution is collaboration to help transfer technology from rich to poor countries, UCN’s Agnolucci said. Without it, the number of farmers leaving their land and migrating north could grow, he warned.

But Cornell’s Ortiz-Bobea said migration should be part of adaptation strategies. At some point, it will probably become impossible to improve productivity on land where land is scarce and water is scarce, even with the latest technology, he noted.

More radical ideas may be needed, he added.

“Perhaps the best way to ensure food security is not necessarily for smallholder farmers to grow their own food, but for them to be able to receive training and work in a sector where they can buy that food,” he said.

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