In the Face of Climate Change: Integrate, Collaborate and Engage

By Rachel Zamzow

DES MOINES, Iowa — Advanced agricultural technology and government policy may be crucial in global efforts to adapt to climate change, but the actions of smallholder farmers will determine the success of these efforts, several researchers said here Wednesday.

Comprising a majority of the world’s agricultural production, smallholder farmers in local communities across the globe must be educated and empowered, the researchers said.

“Ultimately it’s people when it comes to adapting to climate change,” said University of Missouri School forestry researcher Francisco Aguilar.

In a panel discussion on “Feeding a Growing World in the Face of Climate Variability” at the 2013 World Food Prize, Aguilar and other experts discussed how to respond to the global challenges presented by climate change. Three key themes emerged from the presentations: we must integrate technologies, collaborate across disciplines and engage local farmers directly.

In his presentation, 2013 World Food Prize Laureate Robert Fraley stressed the importance of a “convergence of biotechnology and breeding,” especially when it comes to increasing the resilience of crops to climate change. Fraley is the Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto Co.

He noted that seeds may now have one or two genes tagged for resistance to water stress or insects. But in 20 years Fraley expects seeds to have 10 or 15 genetic traits specifically for the purpose of resilience.

In this sense, seed breeders become more like biotechnologists, breeding gene by gene to increase resistance to many aspects of climate change. This integration of technology will allow for “pyramided combinations of resistance,” Fraley said. Such combinations will be key in adapting to climate change.

Corinne Valdivia, an agricultural economist with the University of Missouri, emphasized the value of collaboration across scientific and social disciplines in the face of climate change.

“Collaborative research is difficult and complicated,” Valdivia said. “But it is essential.”

As part of her work in Peru and Bolivia, Valdivia has found success when collaborating with atmospheric scientists, plant biologists, social scientists, non-governmental organizations and even local teachers in terms of studying climate change and how to adapt to it.

Engaging local communities also will play a large role in adapting to climate change. Farmers perceive pests, frost and decreasing soil fertility as strong threats to their livelihood. Thus, they stand to suffer from the effects of climate change and yet, due to a lack of communication, the “likelihood of them using new knowledge is very low,” Valdivia noted.

Using science to connect with local knowledge will help farmers learn to adapt to climate change, she said.

Aguilar also discussed engaging the local community. He emphasized the importance of empowering the entrepreneurship and ingenuity of smallholder farmers. For example, microfinancing can be “vital to support entrepreneurship.”

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