Agroecology Toolkit Helps Latin American Farmers Combat Climate Change

Agriculture accounts for a third of greenhouse gas emissions globally, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). And according to some projections, half of all farmland in Latin America may be affected by desertification by 2050. Agroecology is one way to improve resilience in the face of climate change and provide greater security for farmers facing changing climate patterns and extreme weather events in Latin America and the Caribbean.

A new “Didactic Toolkit for the Design, Management, and Assessment of Resilient Farming Systems” was recently released to address these issues in the region.

The toolkit is intended for conducting quick assessments of farmers’ vulnerability, initiating ecological practices to improve resiliency and reduce future risk, and monitoring farmers’ recovery after climatic events. The publication was a joint effort of SOCLA (Sociedad Científico Latinoamericana de Agroecología) and RedAgres, a scientific network of agroecologists working in the countries of the SOCLA network to promote knowledge exchange within the areas of agriculture and climate change. By analyzing the impact of climate change on food production in Central and South America, the network is helping to drive scientific approaches and help farmers adapt to changing weather. SOCLA and RedAgres are applying agroecology to development and scaling of resilient agricultural systems across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Resilience—the ability of a system to avoid and adapt to shocks—is sorely lacking in food and farming. Ecological resilience is destabilized by the inherent vulnerability of monoculture to climate change, and farmers’ ability to adapt to changing weather patterns is undermined by the loss of agricultural biodiversity.

Up to 100,000 plant varieties are currently endangered worldwide, and extreme weather is dragging down global agricultural productivity. According to the SOCLA/RedAgres toolkit, many land management practices reduce biodiversity and thereby, resiliency on farms around the world. These practices—ranging from land reallocation to specialization in one or few crops—destroy natural habitat, lower water tables, and simplify landscapes.

However, there are many agroecological practices that can reverse these troubling trends and enhance resiliency, including practices such as increasing plant biodiversity on farms, managing soil cover, adding organic matter to soils, and harvesting rainwater, according to the publication. Decreasing use of pesticides is another way to reduce farmers’ input costs and improve both their economic resilience and the crop diversity of farms. “In order to have a pest, you have to have a system that is unhealthy," says Miguel Altieri, President of SOCLA. "Monocultures are the worst systems you can have.

They invite pests. But you can increase immunity through diversification."

Using the SOCLA/RedAgres toolkit, farmers and researchers can employ various methodologies for assessing on-farm resiliency and understand farmers’ perceptions of climatic variables. A questionnaire included in the toolkit helps researchers to diagnose risk and vulnerability using farmers’ responses.

The toolkit also helps to clarify terms and concepts useful for assessing climate risk and farm-level vulnerability. Response capacity, for instance, is “the ability (or lack of ) the farming systems and the farmers to resist and recover from the threat depending on the level of social organization and the agroecological features (i.e. crop diversity) of the farms.” Risk is understood to be a function of vulnerability, climate threat, and response capacity of a farm.

Improving farm-level resilience to climate change is vital to reducing the social and economic risks for small farmers in Latin America. However, larger schemes are also necessary to address resilience at the landscape level across Latin America and the Caribbean. According to one study by researchers at the World Bank, local communities need better regional climate change action plans and early warning systems to reduce risk in the face of extreme weather and climatic shifts. To demonstrate true resilience, farms need to be rooted in strong rural communities that provide “production landscapes for enhanced environmental, social, and economic resilience,” according to another report by the World Bank.

The estimated negative impacts of climate change on agricultural productivity in Latin America are significant and inequitable, according to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank. Smallholders are most likely to suffer greater economic and social impacts of climate change and face limited resources with which to cope, says the bank. Yet despite the projected negative impacts of climate change on small farmers, researchers expect the region’s agricultural sector to play an increasingly important role in the global food system, noting that food exports from Latin America grew to account for 23 percent of global agricultural trade by February of 2014.

Many researchers and organizations in Latin America and across the globe are working to improve farmers’ resilience to climate change through both science and policy. And by diversifying cropping systems, improving soil quality, and utilizing nature’s ecosystem services, farmers are adapting to climate change and implementing creative solutions to the challenges they face in their fields every day.

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