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Source: University of Canterbury

05 April 2022

Small scale farming could be part of the solution to climate change, according to some of the world’s top scientists.

  • IPCC contributing writer Professor Jack Heinemann from UC’s School of Biological Sciences says small scale farmers feed 80% of the world, and use less carbon-intensive inputs.

Professor Jack Heinemann from the University of Canterbury’s School of Biological Sciences contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Cycle (AR6) Report released today 5 April: Mitigation of Climate Change.

Industrial agriculture uses carbon intensive inputs to support large monocultural crops, while small farmers, who produce an astounding proportion of food, don’t, Professor Heinemann says.

“Small scale food producers currently produce about 80% of the world’s food,” he says, “and they have potential to not only increase the proportion of their contribution, but the total that they produce.”

Small scale farmers are mostly women, he says. This is important because evidence shows that women in developing countries tend to do better at investing money from small businesses back into their families.

“Even without climate change, a change in food systems that shifted financial resources to small scale farmers would have collateral benefits of improving the conditions for women and children because women are more likely to use increased income to purchase health care and education for their families.”

In Chapter 5 of the latest IPCC report: Food, fibre and other services from managed ecosystems, scientists were asked to review and assess relevant scientific studies from 2014 onwards, focussing on strategies for adapting the food system to climate change, Professor Heinemann says.

They looked at a range of options.

For example, plants could be genetically modified to use water more efficiently to deal with future droughts or to withstand more water for potentially wetter conditions in the future.

“This approach is favoured by those who breed or engineer plants with new or altered traits and largely see farmers as consumers of innovations in plant genetics. Productivity may be raised this way, but it also increases fertiliser and pesticide use, which exacerbates climate change.”

However, the approach with the strongest evidence of success is one that supports small farmers to transition to greatest productivity at the ecosystem level. The area of science that is most advanced for this approach is called agroecology.

“The limitation of the first approach is that breeding for single extreme environments does not result in plants adapted to highly variable environments of the future. To mitigate the effects of climate change, the second approach emphasises the ecology of the farm, such as the soil in which the plants grow. The farmer is transformed into the primary agent of mitigation rather than a predominantly passive recipient of breeder’s products.”

Scientists believe agroecology could be a way forward for both mitigating and adapting to climate change. As well as mitigating environmental damage, agroecology would also provide social sustainability benefits with more autonomy for farmers and greater gains in health and education. 

“An agroecological or similar approach, supported by breeding suited to farms that have more mixed cultivation rather than monocultures, and are dependent on fewer external high carbon inputs such as manufactured fertilisers, could replace our failing green revolution approaches,” Professor Heinemann says.

The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report consists of contributions from each of the three IPCC Working Groups and a Synthesis Report (SYR), which integrates the Working Group contributions and the Special Reports produced in the cycle.

Read more about AR6 Climate Change 2022: Working Mitigation of Climate Change here.

Read more about WGII – Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability and UC Professor Bronwyn Hayward’s work on Chapter 6: Cities and Infrastructure and on the IPCC gender report here.

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