Few professions are as harmed by the climate crisis as farming, which depends on stable climate and environmental conditions for good harvests.
As global temperatures rise and precipitation patterns shift, farmers are facing devastating new challenges such as severe drought, floods, and pest infestations, along with increasing desertification and dwindling groundwater supplies. These shocks come at a time when global food production needs to significantly increase to feed the growing human population and curb the ongoing hunger crisis, which currently ensnares 800 million people worldwide.
In this urgent context, groups like Global Citizen’s partner the Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens are supporting farmers as they adapt and prepare for the future.
The surest way to protect global agriculture is by phasing out fossil fuels to prevent catastrophic levels of global warming. Farming has already become harder at 1.2 degrees Celsius of warmth; each additional tenth of degree of warming adds more difficulty.
Another effective solution involves shifting from industrial modes of agriculture that degrade the environment and fuel the climate crisis to regenerative forms of agriculture that heal ecosystems. Investing in food production that promotes biodiversity would also facilitate the global goal of conserving 30% of land and marine spaces by 2030.
Beyond these two main pillars of action, examples of climate adaptation vary on the local and regional level and showcase the ingenuity and resilience of farmers everywhere.
If climate change is the new normal, then we’re merely in the first stages of adaptation. Yet the field as a whole remains profoundly underfunded and very little of the money that is raised makes it to farmers.
In fact, only 1.7% of climate funding worldwide goes to support smallholder farmers in developing countries who are on the frontlines of the crisis. Without more funding, global food yields could decline by 30% by 2050. In the years ahead, countries need to reverse these trends by adequately investing in climate adaptation measures for agriculture.
Here are 12 ways farmers are tackling climate adaptation around the world.
1. Drought-Resistant Crops
Shifting rain patterns affect regions of the world differently. In sub-Saharan Africa, it has largely meant less rainfall. In Zimbabwe, droughts have become endemic and good rains only come every five years, according to the International Energy Agency.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is helping farmers adapt to drier conditions with drought-resistant maize. Farmers who used these new seeds produced up to 1,300 more pounds of maize than their counterparts during years of drought, which has improved income levels, and allowed families to invest in their operations.
In Ethiopia, farmers have increased yields by switching to seed varieties that can better tolerate drought and fight off disease.
2. Returning to Native Plants
Jackfruits are native to Sri Lanka, but market pressures have pushed people to focus on more in-demand agricultural commodities like rice. Now, as increasing drought diminishes the availability of water, communities are returning to jackfruits to ease pressures on local landscapes. The shift has been a boon for public health, because jackfruits are full of important nutrients, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
In Zambia, farmers are moving away from the dominance of maize to grow native crops year-round that improve nutrition access and promote soil health.
And throughout the US, farmers are incorporating native wildflowers throughout their gardens to improve soil health and attract essential pollinator species like bees.
3. Fast-Growing Varieties
Legumes — such as beans, peanuts, and lentils — contribute a third of the protein consumed by humans worldwide. Not only are they an essential source of nutrients, but they also improve the health of soil, bolstering ecosystems in the process. As rising temperatures make it harder to grow lentils, scientists with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas have developed crop varieties that grow faster and more abundantly. As a result, farmers have been able to double their harvests and grow lentils in between other agricultural seasons, maximizing overall food production.
4. Better Water Management
As water becomes scarce, farmers are beginning to optimize their irrigation methods with a mix of high and low tech.
In Pakistan, drip and sprinkler irrigation systems installed across 23,000 hectares of land have limited overall water use, thus improving more than 12,000 waterways.
Rice farmers, meanwhile, are simply rotating when they water different rice fields rather than maintaining a constant flow of water. In doing so, farmers have managed to use 38% less water.
In various countries, CGIAR is helping communities clean and repurpose wastewater to make due with limited resources and reduce pollution.
5. Improved Insurance
Farming is an uncertain endeavor, especially during the climate crisis. With insurance, farmers can have more confidence that they’ll be able to plant again next year if crops fail this time around. Yet millions of farmers lack this safety net, making them extremely vulnerable to poverty if their harvest yields don’t live up to their potential.
Various organizations are working to fill the insurance gap to safeguard farmers. In Kenya, Ethiopia, and India, a smartphone app helps farmers track crop progress to facilitate insurance payouts if things go wrong. In Bolivia, IFAD investments into insurance programs are making it more widely available. The US Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, created a Micro Farm policy to support growers of organic and specialty crops with insurance.
6. Universal Weather Advisory Systems
Farming has the potential to be extremely scientific in nature, with people measuring the pH and water retention levels of the soil to make daily adjustments. But not every farmer has access to this insight. In fact, more than 300 million farmers worldwide don’t even have access to technology that alerts them to local weather patterns.
Countries and organizations are building advisory systems to support farmers with this basic information. Smartphone apps and radio stations have been designed to provide reliable information on rain and other conditions, a simple form of outreach that has a 1:24 return on investment, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI).
7. Shared Resources
A new collection of crowdsourcing apps are helping farmers share their resources to improve productivity. The app Hello Tractor allows farmers in Kenya to rent out tractors for a much cheaper rate than buying them, greatly reducing the amount of time farmers spend outside doing hard labor in increasingly hostile conditions.
Increasing heat waves are also a menace to the millions of farmers who lack easy access to refrigeration. But a flock of entrepreneurs have started to address this problem by democratizing access to coolers through community solar grids and walk-in fridges at central locations.
8. Precision Farming With Drones and Satellites
Drones are being deployed to improve harvests in climate-affected areas, according to Sprout Wired. By using spatial-reading technology, drones are able to determine where best to plant crops and then precisely and quickly plant seeds. They’re also helping farmers monitor airborne pests and limit water use.
In Myanmar, drones are being used to replenish depleted mangrove forests that buffer farmers along the coastline from storm surges.
CGIAR developed satellite technology to help farmers in the Philippines better monitor rice paddies to help farmers increase yields.
9. Carbon-Credit Programs
Industrial agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation worldwide, which releases amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, while also destroying essential carbon sinks that absorb these emissions.
Conservation International is mitigating this dynamic with carbon credit programs that pay farmers to protect forests, while allowing them to earn a premium on crops marketed as forest friendly. In Peru, coffee farmers paid to conserve the Alto Mayo forest have generated enough community income to help 240,000 people. In Kenya’s Chyulu Hills, a carbon credit program has made up for the loss of tourism income following the COVID-19 pandemic.
10. Marine Farming
The world has lost a third of its arable land over the past 30 years due to exploitation and mismanagement. At the same time, environmental scientists warn that more food has to be grown on less land in order to maintain the health of wildlife.
One way that farmers are adapting to these pressures is by farming in the ocean. Over the past decade, seaweed and kelp farms have greatly expanded, becoming an important source of nutrition, while also absorbing carbon dioxide and cleaning ocean waters. It’s not just these traditional ocean crops, either. Farmers are turning to the ocean to grow a wide array of fruits and vegetables, even putting pods on the ocean floor to grow berries.
11. Urban Farming
Cities represent another largely untapped frontier for farming. If urban farming took off around the world, it could generate 180 million tons of food a year. It could also reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with food transportation and storage, improve access to highly nutritious foods, clean local air systems, and improve quality of life.
Some of the most productive forms of urban farming include community gardens, vertical farming in empty buildings, and rooftop farms.
For much of recent history, forests have been cleared to make way for livestock and industrial farming operations. Now, as the climate and biodiversity crisis worsens, the negative impacts of this short-term thinking have become clear.
Communities worldwide are increasingly integrating farms into natural ecosystems to promote reforestation and soil health, while also taking advantage of the foods that naturally grow in forests such as cocoa, mushrooms, and acai to support their livelihoods.
In Moldova, communities are creating “shelter belts” to restore degraded forests and landscapes, while taking up a new forest friendly profession: bee-keeping.
These are just some of the most common ways that farmers are adapting to climate change, and if you ask any farmer in particular how they’re adapting, you’re bound to get a unique perspective. But across the board, one theme remains consistent — a lack of adequate financing.
In the years ahead, we need world leaders to step up and increase funding to climate smart agriculture and support innovative and sustainable solutions that will help us mitigate and adapt to the impact of climate change on the long run.
Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the International Fund for Agricultural Development are funding partners of Global Citizen.