Mighty Tools for Mighty Farmers: Investing in Climate-Smart Agriculture Innovations for Smallholder Farmers

Dr. Jim Barnhart, Assistant to the Administrator, Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, U.S. Agency for International Development.

The climate crisis is a food security crisis. Drought has killed cattle in Kenya and destroyed maize in southern Zambia. Extreme heat has damaged the wheat crop in Bangladesh and droughts and flooding following extreme storm events in 2020 damaged nearly a half million acres of staple food and cash crops across Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, with resulting losses to farmer incomes.

More than 500 million smallholder farmers in the developing world are on the frontlines of feeding communities and contributing to their economies. Now, they are facing a warming world that is changing the food system as we know it. But too often those who have contributed the least to climate change carry the burden: the 50 lowest-income countries have 20 percent of the world’s population and produce less than two percent of global carbon emissions. That’s 24 times less, per person, than emissions from the highest-income countries.

Smallholder farmers urgently need tools to help them prosper in a changing climate, protect their livelihoods, and feed their families. They need those tools now. This is a critical moment for countries to invest in agricultural research and development (R&D) and innovation. Such investments help farmers feed their communities – particularly women and youth farmers who face historic inequities, despite being essential agents of change. This is where the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate) comes in.

Tackling global hunger and climate change through innovation

At its heart, AIM for Climate seeks to address two challenges simultaneously – global hunger and the climate crisis. It is a joint initiative led by the United States and the United Arab Emirates that countries voluntarily join with the intent to significantly increase their investment in climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation over five years (2021-2025). Investing in agriculture R&D is about using the power of innovation to accelerate advances such as development of new crop varieties that can weather extreme conditions, enhance farm management practices to preserve soil and water resources, improve cold storage that prevent food spoilage, and scale innovative approaches developed by local farmers. AIM for Climate encourages support of existing country systems and knowledge – for example, building the capacity and network reach of National Agricultural Research Systems, which are government entities that provide smallholder farmers with critical information on planting material and techniques.

Each country chooses how it will increase its climate-smart agriculture and food systems investment, which can include everything from biotechnology and agroecology, to extension services and private sector partnerships. Whatever the form, innovation and the implementation of inclusive, practical, locally appropriate solutions is essential. In support of AIM for Climate, President Biden announced that the U.S. intends to mobilize $1 billion in public investment in climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation over five years at last year’s COP26, and the initiative has already marshaled $4 billion globally in increased investment.

A Tanzanian farmer is showcasing her onions. Photo credit: Likati Thomas, Feed the Future Tanzania Mboga na Matunda

An urgent need for investments

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is energetically encouraging partner countries to join AIM for Climate, to not only support climate-smart agriculture and food systems, but also to help reduce gender inequities in food systems. The need is great. While the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme recommends that research and development be one percent of a country’s total agricultural budget, sub-Saharan Africa invests only 0.38 percent, South Asia 0.46 percent, and West Asia and North Africa 0.49 percent. Though there are a variety of reasons for this (including the economic impacts of COVID-19 on countries’ budgets) USAID is committed to working with our partners to spur innovation in key areas, such as climate-smart agricultural practices and technologies, and facilitating equitable access to and benefits of these technologies for women, youth, and groups facing exclusion.

As part of our commitment to advancing context-specific, science-based solutions to the effects of climate change on agriculture, USAID is investing at least $215 million over five years in the global research platform CGIAR, with a goal to help 200 million smallholder farmers raise agricultural productivity in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa by 25 percent by 2030. Our support includes funding for the CGIAR Gender Platform, which is engaging in a major research program on climate and gender, as gender equality hinges on giving more attention to women’s active roles in climate adaptation and mitigation.

Shared challenges in the face of climate change

The climate crisis presents many shared challenges, and our climate-smart investments benefit both smallholder farmers abroad and Americans. Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, supports 21 U.S. university-led Feed the Future Innovation Labs, a network of more than 70 U.S. colleges and universities. The network includes numerous Land-Grant Universities as well as Minority Serving Institutions that partner with research institutions in low-and-middle income countries. Together, they use science and innovation to protect the global food supply and reduce food insecurity by developing climate-resilient crops, tackling plant and animal diseases, and building sustainable agricultural systems.

At COP26 – in alignment with AIM for Climate’s objectives – USAID Administrator Samantha Power announced the launch of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Current and Emerging Threats to Crops, led by Pennsylvania State University. The Innovation Lab will leverage the university’s proven Plant Village approach, which works to increase the yield and profitability of millions of smallholder farmers in Africa through artificial intelligence and satellite technology – as well as the university’s pest management expertise and global networks – to tackle transboundary pests and disease exacerbated by climate change. Additionally, USAID  awarded a new Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Horticulture, led by the University of California, Davis, to address the opportunities and challenges of production, post-harvest, enterprise development, and commercialization of horticulture, thus reducing  food loss and waste.

These efforts are moving us  in the right direction, but no one can do this alone. AIM for Climate welcomes participation from governments, the private sector and NGOs. (For those interested in finding out more, we encourage you to visit AIM for Climate’s website.) Here’s the bottom line: The more of us participating in AIM for Climate, the more tools smallholder farmers have to feed and support themselves, their families, and coming generations. All people deserve the promise of a well-nourished life. We encourage you to join in – the future needs us.

Header image photo credit: Ou Andeng CFR, World Fish, Kampong Thom Province, Cambodia