Unsung heroes: small-scale farmers step in as climate finance lags

Starved of climate finance, the world’s small-scale farmers are having to dig deep to pay to adapt to climate change:

  • Small farmers spend $368 billion annually to adapt
  • Little climate finance goes to key food producers
  • Farmers try natural methods to protect ecosystems


NEW DELHI – As droughts and floods wreak havoc on harvests, small-scale farmers are spending billions of dollars of their own money each year to adapt to a changing climate, despite it being a problem they did not create, according to research released on Tuesday.

A survey of about 1,800 farmers by the Forest and Farm Facility (FFF), a funding platform supporting farmers, and the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) found that, on average, farming households each invest $838 per year to adapt to shifting weather patterns.

Extrapolating the average spending, the survey across 13 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America estimated that nearly 440 million small-farmer households are collectively spending approximately $368 billion annually on adaptation.

This “dwarfs” the $230 million pledged by countries for the U.N.’s Adaptation Fund at last year’s COP27 climate talks, according to the research.

“Farmers working small plots of land around the globe are the unsung heroes of the battle to adapt to the climate and nature crises,” said Xiaoting Hou Jones, a senior researcher at IIED, who co-led the survey.

As climate change disrupts their lives, these farmers are investing significant amounts of their own time and money to cope, often in ways that help people and nature thrive together, “dwarfing the contributions from rich governments”, she added.

Some farmers invest in climate-resilient crops, others shift to soil-friendly cultivation methods that require less water and chemical fertilisers, while some farmers plant trees.

The survey, which covered smallholder forest and farm producers managing 10 hectares (24.7 acres) or less, said many of the approaches taken can help conserve biodiversity and store carbon, improving climate resilience.

A separate analysis, also released on Tuesday, found that very little of the climate finance available globally reaches small farmers to help them adapt to a warming planet.

In 2021, they received only about $2 billion, or 0.3% of international climate finance from public and private sources, according to the analysis by Amsterdam-based think-tank Climate Focus and released by a new alliance of farmer networks in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific.

Farm labourers carry rice saplings for planting in a field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, July 21, 2023

Farm labourers carry rice saplings for planting in a field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, July 21, 2023. REUTERS/Amit Dave

Never enough cash

Small family farms sustain the livelihoods of more than 2.5 billion people globally but lack infrastructure, technology and resources to adapt to climate impacts, with serious implications for global food security and rural economies, said the Climate Focus analysis.

Family farms of less than two hectares produce a third of the world’s food, while farms of five hectares or less account for over half of global production of nine staple crops: rice, peanut, cassava, millet, wheat, potato, maize, barley and rye.

Strengthening “sustainable food systems” will be a key consideration at December’s COP28 United Nations climate summit in Dubai.

The host nation, the United Arab Emirates, is urging governments to include food and agriculture in their national climate plans and boost finance for more sustainable practices. COP28 is also set to define how to implement a global goal for adaptation enshrined in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

In the absence of sustained financial support, farmers in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions are having to find their own solutions to new climate challenges.

Shashikant Shukla, a farmer in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh state, recently borrowed fertilisers worth 4,000 rupees ($48) from his dealer to prepare for the winter wheat crop.

In 2022, when his wheat harvest plummeted because of unprecedented March heatwaves, it took him several months to pay back loans.

“Small farmers like me have a credit cycle – we never have enough cash to sow the next crop,” said Shukla, who cultivates wheat, pulses and oilseeds on about half an acre.

Erratic rainfall in the monsoon months from June-September has almost put an end to that season’s crop cycle in his region, he said, with most farmers now vesting their hope in winter wheat. But over the years, it too has become vulnerable to early heatwaves and unseasonal rains.

“Whenever the wheat crop is struck by a disaster, farmers start selling their cattle to repay and sow the next crop,” he said. In the past decade, he had to sell a pair of oxen and a buffalo to cover his debt.

Farmers carry a basin of cassava after a harvest on a farm in Oyo, Nigeria May 18, 2023

Farmers carry a basin of cassava after a harvest on a farm in Oyo, Nigeria May 18, 2023. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

$300 billion needed

To help the most vulnerable communities, including small farmers like Shukla, spending on adaptation must increase by 10 to 18 times from current levels, the U.N. Adaptation Gap report said this month.

Every respondent to the IIED-FFF survey noted some kind of climate change impact, including floods, droughts, increases in pests or diseases, and changes in seasons or rainfall.

Farmers said they are adjusting planting and harvesting schedules, controlling pests, soil erosion and surface water run-off, and improving soils with eco-friendly approaches.

They are also protecting natural areas and increasing the number of crop species, trees and animals on their land, along with attending training courses on adaptation.

On average, farmers told the survey they are spending 20%-40% of their annual income on doing trials and implementing ecological farming practices to adapt.

Climate Focus said more than $300 billion a year is needed to make food systems sustainable and resilient. However, only about $1.6 billion was spent globally to support farm adaptation activities in 2021 – only a fifth of international public climate finance for the food and agriculture sector.

Small farmers struggle to access even the limited amounts of finance available as about 80% is channelled through governments and development agencies with complex eligibility rules and application processes, the farmers’ alliance analysis said.

Damian Sulumo of the Tanzanian Farmers Association, MVIWAARUSHA, whose members participated in the IIED-FFF survey, said direct finance provided through producer organisations, like cooperatives, can encourage small farmers to take action.

“By working collectively, we can reach the scale needed to influence policies and markets not only for the betterment of our farmers’ own prospects but also for the global fight against climate change and biodiversity loss,” he said.

Esther Penunia, secretary general of the Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development, said investing in small-scale farmers made sense.

“Generations of family farming experience and the latest scientific evidence tell us that working with nature and empowering local communities is key to safeguarding food production in a changing climate,” she said.

($1 = 83.1950 Indian rupees)

(Reporting by Bhasker Tripathi; Editing by Megan Rowling and Clar Ni Chonghaile)


This article was originally published by:  Thomson Reuters Foundation