Small Farms, Large Stakes: Climate Change and Smallholder Farmers

Growing up in England, I never imagined that I would someday develop a passion for working with smallholder farmers and biodiversity conservation in tropical countries. Yet both my professional and personal lives have become intertwined with these issues, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Farmer in Tanzania. Smallholder farmers are estimated to represent 85% of the world's farms and provide over 80% of the food consumed in the developing world. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Farmer in Tanzania. Smallholder farmers are estimated to represent 85% of the world’s farms and provide over 80% of the food consumed in the developing world. (© Benjamin Drummond)

As a scientist with CI, I conduct research on agricultural practices and approaches that can help ensure farm productivity, improve farmer livelihoods and conserve biodiversity; participate in related technical expert groups and consortia (such as the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative); and work with our field programs to promote climate-smart, biodiversity-friendly landscapes across the tropics.

On a personal level, I am married to the son of a Costa Rican campesino (farmer), live on a small farm in rural Santa Elena (Costa Rica) and am surrounded by many in-laws, friends and neighbors who are small coffee or dairy farmers.

For me, the impacts of climate change on smallholder farmers are therefore visible on a daily basis. When the rains come late and temperatures soar above normal, I can see from my window that my father-in-law’s maize field is withering, and know that other families will also suffer both the loss of important food crops and potential income.

river and rice paddies in China

A river flows through rice paddies in China. Thanks to climate change impacts, many crops are failing, pest and disease outbreaks are becoming more common and destructive, and many traditional farming systems are no longer viable. (© Quan Long)

Climate change impacts are already being felt by smallholder farmers worldwide. With rising temperatures and more erratic rainfall, many crops are failing, pest and disease outbreaks are becoming more common and destructive, and many traditional farming systems are no longer viable.

Smallholder farmers are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they typically depend on their crops and animals for both food security and income generation, rely on rain to water their fields, live in remote, often marginal lands (with low productivity) and often lack access to credit, technical services and government support.

Many smallholders already live in precarious conditions and have a very low capacity to adapt to climate change. When their farms are subjected to long droughts or hit by strong hurricanes, they have limited resources to maintain their families and rebuild their farms, and often fall further into poverty.

While there are no exact figures on the numbers of smallholder farmers worldwide, it is clear that this is a problem of huge proportions. It is estimated that smallholders provide over 80% of the food consumed in the developing world, represent 85% of the world’s farms and comprise 60% of the global agriculture workforce. The impacts of climate change on smallholder farmers therefore will likely have enormous social and environmental ramifications for all of us.

There is an urgent need to identify how we can help smallholder farmers adapt to climate change, both at the local level and on the international stage. One potential means of helping them do so is the use of ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA). This refers to the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services (such as pollination, nutrient cycling and freshwater provision) as part of a strategy to help people adapt to climate change.

produce at market, Indonesia

Produce at a market in Indonesia. (© Jessica Scranton)

While most people think that ecosystem-based adaptation refers only to the conservation and restoration of natural ecosystems (e.g., forests, mangroves, coastal ecosystems), there are also many opportunities for farmers and ranchers to apply EbA within agricultural systems and landscapes.

Examples include:

  • Establishing diverse agroforestry systems that intersperse forest trees with crops like coffee or cocoa in order to regulate temperatures, reduce impacts of strong rain events and enhance soil fertility;
  • Incorporating “live fences” and windbreaks of native tree species to provide shade and fodder, reduce heat and wind stress and improve animal productivity;
  • Protecting riparian forests and forest fragments within the agricultural landscape to ensure water availability, reduce erosion and stabilize hillsides;
  • Restoring degraded areas through natural regeneration, planting or adoption of more sustainable agricultural practices; and
  •  Diversifying farm crops, agricultural systems and landscapes to reduce the risks of crop failure due to extreme weather events.

All of these practices not only help farmers adapt to climate change impacts, they also help ensure the continuous delivery of ecosystem services which underpin agricultural productivity. Many of these practices have the additional benefit of serving as an alternative source of income (fruits, timber, firewood, medicine) for farmers. They also are critical for conservation, providing additional habitat for biodiversity and improving the overall connectivity of agricultural landscapes for wildlife movement.

woman milks goats in Tibet

A woman milks goats in Tibet. (© Rod Mast)

This week at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meetings in Bonn, Germany, I’m hosting an event with several partner organizations to highlight how EbA can help smallholder farmers adapt to climate change.

Together with colleagues from World Vision, CARE, UNEP and the German government, I will be sharing case studies revealing how smallholder farmers across the world can apply EbA approaches on their farms and how such an approach can be beneficial for conservation efforts.

We will be providing examples from CI’s own work — including the German-funded CASCADE project in Central America (PDF), and the Adaptation Solutions project in South Africa, Philippines and Brazil — as well as examples from the diverse work of our partners.

We will also explore the current political, technical and financial challenges for scaling up the use of ecosystem-based approaches in agricultural landscapes, and provide recommendations on how to overcome them.

Global conferences such as the Bonn meetings are important platforms for presenting promising approaches to tackle climate change and to generate interest in scaling up their use. However, we urgently need these conferences to translate into action on the ground, with clear commitments from governments and funding agencies to support smallholder farmers across the world.

With climate change expected to have a large impact on farmers around the world, it’s vital that we take steps to protect the smallholders, who are already feeling the impacts of climate change and are disproportionately vulnerable to its effects. As I look out my Costa Rican office window at the surrounding pastures, maize fields and coffee plantations, I am continually reminded both of the urgency and magnitude of the problem.

At CI, we’re actively promoting the use of EbA to help smallholder farmers adapt to climate change, but much more is needed to tackle the full scope and scale of this critical challenge.

Celia Harvey is vice president of ecosystem services at CI.


  1. Pingback: Climate Change: What’s at stake for Smallholder Farmers? | Landscapes for People, Food, and Nature Blog

  2. Emmanuel Torquebiau says

    Smallholder farming is vulnerable to climate change, but it also holds a greater potential than industrial farming to adapt to climate change, mainly for the two following reasons: (1) small farms are diverse, with many different crops, fields and landscape components such as hedges, ditches, scattered trees, etc. (2) small farms make little use of agrochemicals.

    To achieve ecosystem-based adaptation as described by Celia Harvey, farm diversity and reduced use of agrochemicals through agroecological approaches are essential. So I see here a sort of “chance” for small farmers to adapt to climate change. In contrast, industrial agriculture (e.g. large monocultures with high use of external inputs) needs to change everything if it wants to adapt to climate change. So we should support all initiatives that promote diversity and agroecology in small farms.

    This topic and many others were discussed this week at an International Conference on “Family Farming and Research” held in Montpellier, France. See here:

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  4. John Swift says

    Well written article, important subject, enjoy the personal connection. I might suggest a closer link to the “Agro-ecology” movement which strives for the same goals. The term “services” can be mis-understood as trying to commodify nature. With a goal to have a “thriving” soil, annually improving organic matter – the small farmers will play a HUGE role in sequestering carbon and improving biodiversity.

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