In a Changing Climate, Farming Methods Have Big Impact

Farayi Madziwa is currently attending the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa. Read other COP 17 posts.

By adopting sustainable farming practices like agroforestry and composting, farmers can help mitigate climate change by maximizing the amount of carbon sequestered and stored on their land. (© Benjamin Drummond)

In 2007, a South African farmer named Marilease from Plettenberg Bay had her honeybush crop destroyed by floods. The floods returned the following two years, causing diseases such as root rot — unheard of in previous years. The year after that, farmers instead experienced a drought, and had to invest in boreholes, an adaptation strategy that helps them supply much needed fresh water to both crops and people.

The future of farming remains uncertain as farmers around the world face many challenges exacerbated by the looming threat of climate change. Yet despite these threats to productivity, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that agriculture production needs to go up 70 percent if we are to feed a burgeoning world population of 9 billion people by 2050.

Here in Durban, Marilease joined other farmers and fishers at a side event hosted by the Adaptation Network, a collaboration of South African NGOs, civil society and government focused on adaptation. Conservation South Africa is on the steering committee of this group; the event aimed to share knowledge about climate variability and change and share insights from the COP 17 process.

Participants eagerly spoke about what climate variability means to them, and we listened intently, ready to hear from the “horse’s mouth” about the challenges small-scale farmers are facing and how they are responding to them. Many more examples can be given of how climate change is affecting productivity of crop lands, the distribution and availability of some marine fish species, and the livelihoods of farmers and fishers across the globe.

While climate change is undoubtedly impacting agriculture, the reverse is also true, revealing the huge role farming could play in mitigating climate change. Research is showing that contemporary agriculture practices release soil carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. According to a presentation given last week by Professor Raymond Auerbach of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, of the 2.4 trillion metric tons of carbon present in the Earth’s soil, an average of 2 billion is being released back into the atmosphere every year — partially from destructive farming techniques like slash-and-burn agriculture and excessive tilling of cropland.

However, it is not all doom and gloom; farmers can help fight climate change by adopting more sustainable farming practices. For example, by planting trees among their other crops and using compost, farmers can increase the amount of carbon sequestered and stored on their land while also gaining supplemental income from fruit and other products from these trees.

Organic farming can also offer a great opportunity for farmers to adapt to climate change while simultaneously offering mitigation solutions; organic agriculture has also been shown to be able to sequester twice as much carbon dioxide into the soil as conventional agriculture. Although organic farming methods traditionally resulted in lower yields than conventional practices, these yields seem to be increasing — a hopeful prospect as we struggle to keep food production at pace with global population growth.

The climate talks in Durban therefore need to recognize the need for action now — the need for pro-activeness on the part of policy- and decision-makers — to provide the necessary resources and start making changes on the ground that will help farmers like Marilease adapt to an ever-changing climate, improve productivity and safeguard livelihoods for a better tomorrow.

Farayi Madziwa is a climate change policy and markets intern at Conservation South Africa.

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