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Climate-Smart Smallholders

KIGALI – Until the world’s small farmers adopt a series of necessary changes, climate talks such as the United Nations Rio+20 Summit, which will take place in Rio de Janeiro this June, will never translate into action. The emergence of a global green economy requires governments, other policymakers, and businesses from developed and emerging economies to recognize the inextricable linkages between climate change, the environment, and food security. This means bringing the world’s smallholder agriculture into the discussion.

Every day, smallholder farmers in developing countries confront the consequences of climate change. They are often the very first to fall prey to fickle global markets or extreme weather events.

Yet smallholders cannot be ignored when it comes to climate-change solutions: the world’s half-billion small farms account for 60% of global agriculture production and provide up to 80% of the food supply in developing countries. Together, they manage vast areas of our planet, including 80% of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Can we really count on these farmers, many of them desperately poor, to take a leading role in addressing the twin challenges of food security and environmental sustainability? Can they produce more food while protecting the natural environment?

We believe the answer to both questions is a resounding yes. Real-world experience shows that they can. But success is possible only if they can adopt environmentally sustainable techniques that preserve and enhance soil and groundwater.

Examples of how this can be done include terracing to prevent soil loss and degradation through erosion and flooding; radically reducing tillage; rotating crops and applying natural fertilizers – manure, compost, or mulch – to improve soil structure and fertility; and integrating trees with crops and livestock in agro-forestry systems.

Rwanda’s recent experience provides a beacon of hope that increased agricultural output and environmental protection can go hand-in-hand. In the country’s south-western Ngororero District, for example, a project backed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development has helped Rwandan farmers to increase crop yields by up to 300% through improvements such as higher-quality seeds, better planting technologies, and application of fertilizers at the optimal time.

On a larger scale, farmers across Rwanda are replacing greenhouse-gas-producing chemical fertilizers with manure. In some areas of the country, smallholders are also now terracing their land and using other natural techniques to improve the soil’s water-retention capacity and quality, as well as to increase their crop yields.

Using these approaches, Rwanda has quadrupled its agricultural production over the past five years. Indeed, thanks to such remarkable progress in such a short time, Rwanda is now a food-secure country.

Rwanda’s efforts to promote climate-smart agriculture are supported by a wider policy and investment framework that seeks to ensure that all farmers, however small, have access to improved seeds, technical know-how, and a market for their output. Every developing country must understand that we can ensure that smallholders produce more food in sustainable ways only if their farming is profitable.

Indeed, increasing environmentally sustainable farming among smallholders around the world will require reshaping national policies and the architecture of public and private investment so that farmers can learn these techniques, witness their value, and employ them profitably.

The lesson is simple: identify the climate-smart farming practices and techniques that can boost agricultural production, convey the relevant know-how to smallholders, support them as they make the transition, and create a policy environment that enables them to take advantage of this knowledge.

If national policies and international development initiatives support the transition to climate-smart agriculture in these ways, we have no doubt that smallholders everywhere will step up and do their part to help save the planet.

Read more from our "The Road to Rio+20" Focal Point.