“One of the things that the report makes very clear is how farmers respond and how farmers behave will have a huge impact on the effect of climate change,” says Evan Fraser, a University of Guelph geography professor, food security specialist and Canada Research Chair in Global Human Security. He worked on an earlier draft on the food section of the IPCC report.

Fraser says that sophisticated weather forecasting tools are being developed to make it possible for government authorities to react before a catastrophic storm arrives to cause devastation to crops, infrastructure, homes and people. And he also maintains that drought conditions represent a far more serious threat to agriculture single episodic events like storms and floods.

“I think that drought is going to be the bigger problem over the long term, in the 21 century. Certainly drier conditions in the tropics are going to lead to significant challenges for farmers,” he says.

With that in mind, Fraser calls for going in the direction of traditional small farmers by planting diverse crops. Furthermore, he say, one should include drought tolerant crops with a deeper root structures to access water. Furthermore, the food security specialist suggests a ramp up of organic matter, be it recycled manure or what is left of last year’s crop, to serve as a sponge in the soil to trap or restore water.

“We are now aware that the unthinking application of yield-boosting technologies around the world has brought both many good things as well as many bad things. Developing and applying new technologies to boost yields into the future will require a deft handling of both science, agricultural extension, social policy, and a very context-specific understanding of the needs local farmers face,” Fraser told IPS.

But experimentation in agricultural practices is less likely to happen in North America where farming operations, because of their size, are tied up in loans and big contracts to corporations in agribusiness and their unsustainable practices, says food security specialist Danielle Nierenberg, president of the Chicago based Food Tank, a food security think tank.

But small farmers, especially in developing countries, are better able through necessity to innovate and so, “we have a lot to learn from them,” she told IPS.

Many farmers have been encouraged to practice more industrial methods and they are finding in the face of drought and extreme flooding that going back to more traditional and indigenous practices they are able to better combat climate change,” says Nierenberg.

But the president of Food Tank warns against a rigid definition of what constitutes sustainable agriculture. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, where are the soils can be deficient, “an extra boost” of artificial fertiliser may be needed to make the land more productive, she explains.

Meanwhile, some government and international development agencies including the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation are jumping on the “sustainable” bandwagon without completely breaking away from chemical inputs, says Julia Wright, deputy director at the UK-based Centre for Agroecology and Food Security at Coventry.

“Sustainable intensification, for example, can mean a concentrated form of industrial agriculture, and conservation agriculture – one form that the FAO likes to promote,” she told IPS.

One piece of good news, Wright adds, is that there are a number of national governments which have genuine programmes for agroecological or organic smallholder farmers.

“Bhutan is planning to become the world’s first organic country. Bolivia has some supportive policies. Parts of Germany are quite forward thinking in this respect, and of course the Cuban government supports smallholder organic urban agriculture,” Wright said.

© 2014 IPS North America

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