Industries in Depth

Why we must invest more in the farms of the future

Idris and Sabrina Elba visit Maboikandoh, Sierra Leone. On an IFAD programme working to reduce rural poverty and food insecurity on a sustainable basis through agriculture.

We must help small-scale farmers adapt to climate change, say IFAD President Gilbert F. Houngbo and UN Goodwill Ambassador Idris Elba. Image: IFAD/Rodney Quarcoo

Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo
Director-General, International Labour Organization (ILO)
Idris Elba
United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)
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SDG 13: Climate Action

This article is part of: Forum COP26 Live
  • Small farms are the backbone of economies and food systems across Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
  • But climate change is threatening food production just when the population is soaring.
  • More investment is urgently needed to help small-scale farmers adapt to climate change – or global stability is at risk.

As world leaders travel to Glasgow next week for COP26, there is a little-noticed cause for celebration. Amid the ongoing devastation caused by the pandemic, there was never a need to stockpile food. The global food system shuddered and flexed, yet kept functioning. And the world’s small-scale farmers continued to feed us.

Have you read?

    Small-scale farmers are the unsung heroines and heroes of the pandemic, alongside doctors and nurses, cleaners and cashiers. Small-scale, because 84% of the world’s 570 million farms cover fewer than two hectares, providing about one-third of global food. Heroines, because by some estimates half of the world’s farmers are women. In Africa, women do 40% of all agricultural work.

    We both have our roots in rural West Africa. For generations, our families have relied on farming for their food and incomes. Yet, across the continent, many small-scale farmers are struggling. Despite the fact that they produce most of their countries’ food supply, many are net buyers of food, often earning too little to feed their families. In 2020, more than 280 million Africans – more than one in five – were undernourished, and this figure continues to rise.

    Number of undernourished people in the world, 2015-2020
    The number of undernourished people in the world is rising. Image: IFAD Annual Report 2020

    And, as the climate changes, so does the ability of these farmers to keep growing food. Erratic weather, shifting temperatures and more extreme droughts and floods make farming more unpredictable and difficult than ever. Increasingly common crop failures and livestock deaths put our entire food system at risk.

    Without action, climate change could push more than 140 million people to migrate by 2050. We can also expect food prices to become volatile. A natural disaster in one part of the world can cause the price of grain everywhere to increase by more than 50 percent.

    Hungry for investment

    Six years ago in Paris, developed countries committed to mobilize $100 billion a year in climate finance for less developed countries by 2020 – but this has fallen short. Even if all this money was made available, it is unlikely to reach those really on the front line of changing weather patterns. Only 1.7% of climate finance goes to small farms – a tiny fraction of the billions needed to build greater resilience in both farming practices and food chains. This must change.

    The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is focused on eradicating rural poverty and hunger, and it has already integrated climate mitigation and adaptation measures into all of its projects. Our Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme (ASAP) mobilized over $300 million from 11 donors to help six million farmers in 40 countries respond to climate threats.

    Idris and Sabrina Elba visit Maboikandoh, Sierra Leone. On an IFAD programme working to reduce rural poverty and food insecurity on a sustainable basis through agriculture.
    Idris and Sabrina Elba visit Maboikandoh, Sierra Leone, on an IFAD programme working to reduce rural poverty and food insecurity on a sustainable basis through agriculture. Image: IFAD/Rodney Quarcoo

    In Mali, for example, ASAP helped 65,000 farmers adapt to changing conditions by providing biogas digesters and solar panels to reduce tree-felling, and guiding village initiatives to reforest degraded watersheds, protect irrigated areas from flooding and replenish depleted groundwater.

    In Mozambique, the program is helping farmers diversify cropping systems, introduce drought-resistant varieties and new horticultural techniques, and improve water management, while providing access to weather forecasts and finance.

    Stepping up to the challenge

    But far more resources are needed, even as pandemic responses have exploded the budgets of many developed countries, tempting some to cut overseas development assistance. At this COP, we are calling on governments to make a pledge to IFAD’s replenishment and it’s ASAP+ climate finance programme, to help raise the final $350 million required to help more rural communities recover from the pandemic and rebuild their lives.

    If governments up their climate finance contributions to rural small-scale farming, they are investing in the food of the future – raising famers’ production, sales and incomes and securing the global food supply. Without increased investments in the resilience of small farms to climate change, we will face more, and more frequent, crises in the years ahead.

    The effects of climate change can drive conflicts over land, water and other resources, pushing people to migrate. Investing to counter deforestation and loss of wildlife habitats, meanwhile, can cut the risk of viruses crossing from one species to another, triggering global pandemics.

    Smallholder farms are central to restoring the health of our planet and stemming climate change. Their wellbeing matters to all of us, not just the 2.5 billion people worldwide who depend upon them for a living. A green transition is central to many countries’ COVID recovery plans. But some of the best investments we can make to combat climate change and all that flows from it are in sustainable agriculture and small farms in Africa.

    We are at a pivotal point. The world’s leaders need to step up to the challenge.


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    Related topics:
    Industries in DepthClimate ActionFood and WaterGeographies in Depth
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