How to equip farmers for climate change

Editor’s Note: Mark Suzman is president of Global Policy, Advocacy, and Country Programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

At Climate summit, much conversation is about how to slow climate change

Mark Suzman: It's important also to focus on how to equip farmers to adapt to change

Give farmers better seeds, help them diversify their crops and use fertilizers efficiently, he says

CNN  — 

This week in New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is convening world leaders at Climate Summit 2014 to discuss actions the world must take to address the tremendous challenges of climate change.

As conversations about how to mitigate the long-term effects of climate change continue, we cannot overlook the importance of acting now to help the tens of millions of poor farmers in developing countries who are already suffering the devastating effects of climate change.

Mark Suzman

Farmers like Christina Mwinjipe, who I met a few years ago on a trip to Tanzania. Mwinjipe works hard to support her family by farming a small plot. However, Mwinjipe’s corn crop has not been doing well because of drought.

She has planted cassava, a staple crop that does well in hot, dry environments, but plant diseases are severely limiting her harvest. And she does not use fertilizer or have access to irrigation for her legumes, keeping her yields low.

The challenges Mwinjipe faces feeding her family and growing enough crops to pay for her children’s education and basic health care are not unlike those faced by tens of millions of other family farmers in Africa.

Today, they must cope not only with challenging growing conditions and limited resources, but also with rising temperatures and other impacts of climate change.

The rains that used to come regularly during the planting season are more erratic. When they do come, they are often quick bursts that cause floods before the ground can absorb the water. In addition, insects and other pests, particularly during times of drought, are feeding on the surviving crops.

The effects of climate change, including increased drought and pests, have already negatively affected wheat and maize yields in many regions, and climate extremes have led to several periods of rapid food and cereal price increases.

Without action, scientists are predicting that further changes in climate will have an even more dramatic impact on yields of major crops. That, in turn, risks driving up food prices at a time when a growing global population requires greater food security, not less.

Currently, the vast majority of global climate funds go to mitigating the effects of climate change. According to a report by the Climate Policy Initiative, only about 6% goes to adaptation: helping people anticipate and take action to minimize the impacts of climate change. The rest goes to mitigation efforts to reduce the rate and magnitude of climate change over the long term. The discussion here should not be about one or the other; both are needed.

However, accelerating a transition to sustainable, climate-resilient agricultural productivity is essential to helping buffer the world’s poor from the most immediate impacts of climate change, and to ensuring food security for all.

To help people in the poorest countries adapt to the realities of a changing climate, there are a number of actions we are taking and that others can take to ensure climate-resilient and sustainable agricultural solutions that increase the productivity of family farmers. For example:

• Ensuring farmers have better seeds that are more resilient to the shocks associated with climate change. In Africa, for example, 3 million farming households are growing new varieties of drought-tolerant maize. Many of these new seeds also offer higher yields compared to other varieties of maize. In South Asia, family farmers are growing “scuba rice” that can survive 10 days of flooding, and also has significantly improved crop yields.

• Working with farmers to maximize crop yields and improve the health of their land through more efficient use of fertilizers and pesticides, and improved post-harvest processing and storage facilities.

• Helping family farmers diversify what they grow to ensure a nutritionally diverse diet and protect their farming income from the risks of climate change.

These and other adaptive measures can play a vital role in minimizing the impact of climate change on three-quarters of the world’s poorest people. These are the family farmers – the majority women – who already are laboring under difficult conditions to grow enough food to feed and care for their families.

To call attention to this issue, our foundation is joining other organizations and leaders in signing a joint action statement underscoring the threats of climate change to family farmers and the need for action that embraces climate-smart approaches to agriculture.

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