Climate-smart agriculture: Not just for big farms anymore

by President Paul Kagame and Kanayo F. Nwanze

Without the support of the world's small farmers, climate talks such as those set for the Rio+20 Summit can never translate fully into climate action, This is why, as the focus shifts to building a global green economy, Governments, other policymakers and the business community from developed as well as emerging economies must recognize the inextricable linkages between climate change, the environment and food security – and, critically, bring smallholder agriculture into discussion.

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

Yet smallholders cannot be ignored when it comes to climate change solutions:  the world’s half billion small farms  provide up to 80 percent of the food in  in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of 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 is a resounding yes.  Real world experience shows that they can.

Critical to success is adopting environmentally sustainable techniques that preserve and enhance the soil and ground water.

Examples include terracing to prevent soil loss and degradation through erosion and flooding; minimal or zero tillage, crop rotation and the application of manure, compost or mulching, to improve soil structure and fertility; and agro forestry systems that integrate trees with crops and livestock to produce more in sustainable ways.

The recent experience in Rwanda signals hope that increased agricultural output and environmental protection really can go hand-in-hand.

In Ngororero district in the country's southwest, for  example, an IFAD-backed project has seen Rwandan farmers increase crop yields by up to 300 per cent through improved methods, including using better seeds, good planting technologies and applying fertilizer at the optimal time.

On a larger scale, farmers across Rwanda are increasing the use of manure instead of chemical fertilizers that produce greenhouse gases. In some areas of the country, smallholders are now terracing their land and using other natural techniques to improve the water-holding potential of the soil, improving soil quality and increasing their output.

And while these approaches have proliferated during the past five years, Rwanda has quadrupled its agricultural production.  Today it is now a food-secure nation – remarkable progress in just a few years.

Importantly, Rwanda’s efforts to promote climate-smart agriculture are supported by a wider policy and investment framework that seeks to ensure that every farmer, however small, has access to improved seeds, technical know-how and, crucially, a market opportunity for their farm output. This is an important lesson for every developing country.  If we are to ensure that smallholders can produce more food in sustainable ways their farming should be profitable.

Accordingly, scaling up environmentally sustainable farming among smallholders throughout the world will require a reshaping of national policies and the architecture of public and private investment so as to ensure that farmers can learn these techniques, see their value and employ them profitably.

The lesson is simple.  Identify the climate-smart farming practices and techniques that can boost agricultural production, get the relevant know-how to smallholders, support them as they make the transition, and create an enabling policy environment.

If we do this, – and national policies and international development initiatives support a transition to a climate-smart agriculture – we have no doubt that smallholders throughout the world will step up and do their part.

Paul Kagame is President of the Republic of Rwanda. Kanayo F. Nwanze is President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), an international financial institution (IFI) and a specialized agency of the United Nations

Originally appeared in Project Syndicate