World Food Day, climate change and supporting small-holder farmers

This week’s writer is Stefan Epp-Koop, chair of the board of MCC Manitoba. He participated in the Canadian Foodgrains Bank Good Soil learning tour to Kenya in July 2016.

When Hiram Thuo’s crops failed in 2009 due to irregular rainfall, he had little choice but to seek food aid. He did so reluctantly, sad that he was no longer able to feed his family. So Hiram, who farms near Naivasha, Kenya, began attending trainings on vegetable production, irrigation, and drought resistant crops.

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Hiram Thuo, posing with his wife (name unavailable), was excited to share about the changes he has made on his farm. Photo courtesy Andrew Richardson.

Hiram’s farm has been transformed over the past seven years. He now plants crops like watermelon, kale, spinach, capsicum, and passion fruit. These crops are highly sought after by local merchants. As a result he is now able to feed his family and sell the extra to traders in the local market, earning approximately $70 per month – money that is used to pay school fees and make further improvements on the farm.

This summer I had the opportunity to visit many farmers like Hiram during a Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) learning tour to Kenya. The trip was part of the Good Soil campaign, a CFGB initiative to engage the Canadian government to increase support for agriculture as part of our international development assistance.

Like Hiram, many Kenyan farmers we visited talked about the impact of a changing climate – in particular increasingly unpredictable rainfall.  And, like Hiram, many farmers have experienced remarkable transformations, thanks to support for training and scale-appropriate technology.

October 16 is World Food Day, which this year is focusing on the impact of a changing climate on food insecurity.  Small-holder farmers, who make up the majority of the world’s farmers and the vast majority of people experiencing hunger in the world, are very vulnerable to changes in climate such as rapidly changing rainfall or temperature patterns.

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The Good Soil learning tour participants posing with a plaque honoring Canadian contributions at ILRI. CFGB photo/Emily Cain.

Yet, while the Canadian government has shown renewed interest in addressing climate change and mitigating its impacts, its funding for agriculture through international development assistance has dropped by 30% in the past three years. Agriculture, however, can play a critical role in enabling people in developing countries to respond to changing realities: people like Hiram and many of the other farmers  we met in Kenya.

Re-investing in agriculture would allow vital research to take place like the work we visited at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi. ILRI does research focused on the needs of small-scale farmers with livestock. We heard of research ranging from innovative insurance systems for livestock to protect farmers from droughts to identifying more reliable livestock feed for farmers with limited grazing land.

When we visited ILRI, much of the equipment proudly displayed a Canadian logo – a sign of a history of Canadian funding. But while there were a lot of old stickers and plaques, Canadian support has declined.  A reinvestment by Canada in agricultural research for small-scale farmers could make a powerful impact by developing scale-appropriate solutions.

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Lucas Makau with tomatoes ready for market. CFGB photo/Emily Caine.

Or it could mean enabling young entrepreneurs like Lucas Makau to start farming in new ways.  Lucas practices conservation agriculture on approximately three quarters of an acre.  This involves minimal tillage, using mulches or cover crops, and crop rotation.  Lucas has applied this to growing tomatoes, which he then sells in Nairobi – an entrepreneurial approach to farming that has generated income for his family.  A key benefit of conservation agriculture is that much more water is retained in the soil, making crops less susceptible to changing weather patterns.  This increases yields and reduces vulnerability.

Whether supporting grassroots initiatives or the structures and research that support them, Canada can make a big impact by supporting more agricultural initiatives through our international development assistance.  We can reduce global hunger and enable small-scale farmers to be more resilient to the effects of climate change – while also benefiting local economies, empowering women, and improving nutrition.

Please take action to encourage the Canadian government to increase aid for agriculture. Learn more about the Good Soil campaign; then order, sign and send Good Soil postcards to the Prime Minister.  In addition, visit http://aid4ag.ca/, which outlines ten priorities for investing in agriculture – priorities that have been supported by over 30 organizations across Canada.

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