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Adaptation to climate change can be achieved by making agriculture more environmentally sustainable – if the rich countries also reduce their emissions
Worldwide climate change has – as we all know – long since changed from being a future scenario into something that is actually happening. The main responsibility for this lies with the Global North and China.
In rural regions of the Global North, climate change is becoming evident primarily in the form of increasingly frequent extreme weather events, while changes in temperature and rainfall patterns have so far generally been slow and barely perceptible. Due to the favourable starting point of a temperate, i.e. neither unduly hot nor cold climate, farmers here still have numerous options for adapting to the changes. For instance, in these circumstances, one can easily cultivate crops which thrive in warm climates, since there is a wide range of such crop species and varieties. Many agricultural businesses in the northern regions of the world also have the resources for investing in irrigation or drainage systems in order to even out the effects of major fluctuations in rainfall. In addition, the majority of German farmers are insured against major weather losses. What’s more: The Federal Republic subsidises agricultural businesses and it provides government advisers to help them, so the businesses are able to access the latest technology and relevant expertise for dealing with climate change.
Climate change is not the only problem: combined with poor management it has led to a deterioration in the quality of soils, pastureland and water resources, and this has created a critical situation which has already reached a dramatic level in many places
In the Global South by contrast, above all in the poorest countries of Africa, the situation is completely different. Particularly in hot countries where the initial conditions are already extreme and in semi-arid regions, i.e. countries with prolonged periods of drought, the range of available crop species and varieties that are able to cope with the even higher temperatures and even more erratic rainfall that result from climate change is very limited. However, climate change is not the only problem: combined with poor management it has led to a deterioration in the quality of soils, pastureland and water resources, and this has created a critical situation which has already reached a dramatic level in many places. Market and political failings on a national and regional level, together with a lack of know-how and limited access to inputs, have led to this situation, which is being further exacerbated by climate change.
At the local level, this has an impact on farmers in the form of a lack of options and investment opportunities, for instance, due to restricted access to seeds, loans, fertilisers, and pesticides. Furthermore, there is still a lack of professional advice which would enable farmers to improve productivity and would give them the appropriate know-how to be able to adapt to changed climatic conditions.
The current conditions of poverty that most farmers are in mean that they cannot run any risks, and so it’s often impossible for them to change the crop species or varieties that they grow. One example of this: Early-ripening varieties that withstand greater levels of aridity provide yields which are about 25% lower than varieties which have a longer period of growth. This means that such adaptation measures are inevitably associated with economic disadvantages compared to the initial situation. However, if the expected drier conditions then do not occur, which may well be the case since climate variability is also increasing, early-ripening crop varieties may well rot in the fields and not provide any revenue. Therefore, adaptation measures are not without their own costs, and often, or even always, they entail disadvantages, above all if they are designed as a response to a specific direction of climate change – such as even less or even more rainfall. Farmers who don’t have many resources also don’t have the money that is needed for purchasing and operating investments such as irrigation systems that can offset fluctuations in rainfall. Subsidies or loans are not normally available, or they are associated with extremely high rates of interest.
Politicians often have an “urban bias”, in other words they serve the interests of consumers in towns and cities and worsen the situation of producers in the hinterland areas
Another difficulty is that the respective agricultural policies of the countries concerned are usually completely inadequate. Politicians often have an “urban bias”, in other words they serve the interests of consumers in towns and cities and worsen the situation of producers in the hinterland areas. For example, in southern Africa, subsidies have been unilaterally provided for the cultivation of maize for decades now with the aim of promoting national food security. However, this has not achieved the intended goal, and Zambia and Malawi still rank among the countries in the world which have the lowest level of food security. A side effect of this policy is that it has led to a very low level of agricultural diversification, an increase in cultivation risks, the loss of agrobiodiversity, and an unbalanced diet.
But even if – as is the case in some other African countries – there are good political measures in place, e.g. if sensible resource-protection and adaptation programmes have been developed, the measures are not usually implemented, and so far – in cases where they have in fact been implemented – they have had little effect. A reason for this deplorable state of affairs is often the single-project approach which means that measures are taken on a local basis for a limited period of time, but they do not produce any wider effects.
In this legislative period Gerd Müller (CSU) has been appointed as the minister responsible for German development cooperation for the second time in succession. The focus on rural development and agriculture within the “A world without Hunger Initiative” launched by Müller can therefore be continued for another three or four years. All the same, it is recognised that effective adaptation to climate change is a necessary precondition for also producing an agricultural sector that is successful, socially inclusive, and more economically profitable.
So what are the strategies and adaptation measures that should be promoted by development cooperation? Agricultural measures that are likely to succeed are above all those which focus on the increasing variability of rainfall. Such so-called “low-regret measures” are effective at dealing both with increased and reduced rainfall, and also – i.e. unlike the above example – they don’t represent a wasted investment if the expected changes don’t occur. What specific measures could these be? They are typically systematic, and they primarily represent a balancing out of risks. In addition to the taking out of insurances, access to more climatic and pricing information, and greater diversification of agriculture and of all the systems that are used for securing people’s livelihood – which includes the opening up of new sources of non-agricultural income – they are primarily measures for preserving soils which enhance the resilience of agriculture in relation to the cultivation of all types of crops.
An organic soil is much better at compensating both for a lack of rainfall and for excessive rainfall
For instance, soil which has a high organic matter content is much more capable of absorbing water than a mineralised soil. Soil that is organically farmed dries out much slower than an eroded soil that is stripped of vegetation. An organic soil is much better at compensating both for a lack of rainfall and for excessive rainfall. This interrelationship is common knowledge, and it shows that mineral fertilisation alone is not beneficial. Farmers must therefore improve the organic management of the soil. In semi-arid regions the problem is that there is a lack of organic matter – precisely because there is a lack of the most important element for promoting its growth, i.e. water. Composted household waste is a good approach to use, but the amount available is only sufficient for manuring a garden. On the other hand, the benefit of using “catch crops” or “green manures” in fields is extremely limited since the rainy season, i.e. the growing season in these regions, is so short that such measures, i.e. the green manure plants, are in direct competition for water with the main crops.
Nevertheless, even in these cases there are opportunities for tackling climate change. Depending on the location, these may include other “conservation agriculture” techniques, various types of “rain water harvesting“, sustainable, collaborative river basin management, agroforestry and silvo-pastoral systems, and improved management of pastureland. For instance, in the Sahel new forms of “benefit sharing”, the balancing of benefits between arable farmers and herds-people, could be effective. Such initiatives are not really aimed at introducing a new crop species or a new method of pest control, or an expensive irrigation system, because measures like this would either be too specific or too costly, and they also involve increased risks. Rather they consist of non-specific measures – such as organic soil management – or social-institutional innovations which aim to achieve an improved level of organisation that makes joint or complementary farming and learning possible, while at the same time involving little financial expense.
If one goes down this route it will lead to agriculture becoming more ecological, and to stronger connections being formed between the rural and urban populations – who usually already live in multi-locational networks (with multiple livelihoods) in order to achieve a spread of risks. It would represent a “greening” of agriculture because it doesn’t focus on the use of conventional inputs like chemical fertilisers and pesticides – since that is expensive and increases the risks – instead the emphasis would be on diversification. However, such a course of action is only realistic if it is pursued on a non-dogmatic basis and is also accompanied by a significant mechanisation of agriculture in order to make up for the increased workload that is involved in organic soil management and diversification.
Within international cooperation measures these informal networks are usually ignored, as they don’t suit the personalised ways of thinking that are prevalent in western industrial societies
Just as important is the strengthening of multi-local networks or “livelihoods” which are traditionally used in African and Asian countries for the provision of mutual support within families. Since there are still virtually no formalised social security systems in the poorest countries, up to now these informal networks have been the only means of providing support for the sick and elderly. Within international cooperation measures these informal networks are usually ignored, as they don’t suit the personalised ways of thinking that are prevalent in western industrial societies. Development cooperation could align itself with these multi-local realities by providing informal information systems and marketing and insurance systems that are linked to them. Innovative approaches – particularly including the use of digital systems – can easily be combined with such measures. This approach could also be combined with the goal of expanding the networks which have traditionally been limited to the extended family. For instance, improved relationships between herds-people and arable farmers can lead to farmers making more effective use of the manure produced by the cattle, and conversely to cattle herders being able to buy grain cheaply.
So what is involved are socio-ecological innovations which are affordable and which can increase the resilience of the rural population in terms of its adaptation to climate change. These measures must also be economically worthwhile in order for them to be attractive enough for the local population that they can be implemented even without political support. In addition, investments will also be needed in order to make the learning and experimentation possible that is necessary for these measures to be organised in the right way. This money could be taken from the international Adaptation Funds, and the measures themselves could be usefully supported by development cooperation work.
It remains clear that the need to undertake climate adaptation measures in the South must be accompanied by a reduction of emissions in the North. This is the only way to achieve sustainability and to improve the credibility of the global communication process. It is unacceptable for adjustment efforts to be made in developing countries while emissions in the Global North continue to increase.
The Global North should, for instance, significantly reduce the emissions that are produced in industrial agriculture. This likewise requires a “greening” of agriculture, and consequently organic soil management. This would mean that more excess carbon dioxide would be stored in the soil (sequestration), and the reintroduction of site-specific livestock farming together with other measures such as afforestation could achieve the necessary reductions in emissions. Such measures also include the intelligent use of animal and human excrement and waste, and reductions in the amounts of mineral fertilisers and pesticides that are used. Nevertheless, consumers in the North would still have to pay more for their food, which would reduce meat consumption as well as the excessive ecological footprint of the North that it imposes on the countries of the South. The areas of land that are freed up in developing countries could be used for the cultivation of food crops which would benefit the South’s growing rural and urban population.