Published in September 2016

The negative impacts of agriculture on climate change are well documented: Modern agriculture is thought to be responsible for around 14% of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of groundwater worldwide, as well as large-scale deforestation and land degradation.

Sadly, smallholder farmers are often included in this damning list of negatives. Yet, the world’s 1.5 billion smallholders don’t clear vast stretches of land for cultivation or use heavy machinery on their farms.

Instead, smallholders make a vital contribution to food security and climate change mitigation in the some of the world’s poorest countries. With the right kind of help, they can do even more.

"I live here (in southeast Kenya), which is a place that is totally dry. I've been able to plant trees during the dry period without watering them because of the terraces we've been digging. I'm also able to get pigeon peas during the dry season because of terracing. That's why I have an interest in advising farmers to conserve water and the environment."

Andrew Musila Silu, Africa Sand Dam Foundation.

This is how smallholders are helping to create a more sustainable future:

  • Smallholders traditionally rely on farming with nature. Rather than trying to fight nature with technological fixes, they work with what is available naturally, and in the process provide up to 80% of the food supply in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The smallholders we work with implement practices referred to as agro-ecological. This means making the best use of natural resources that are locally available without damaging them. This might include planting trees that will then be managed sustainable to provide shade for other plants, absorb carbon dioxide, as well as providing firewood and fodder.
  • Smallholders diversify. Rather than the large-scale monocultures implemented by modern agriculture, smallholders tend to grow a variety of crops and therefore minimise their impact on the local environment and biodiversity.
  • Smallholders use little water. The dryland communities we support build sand dams or other sustainable rainwater harvesting solutions, which instead of depleting water resources, raise the groundwater table permanently, providing a sustainable water source and regenerating local biodiversity.
  • Finally, smallness has an inherent capacity to be flexible and adaptable. Each community, or even farmer can implement processes that best suit their needs and local circumstances, increasing the chances of success, as well as resilience against the unpredictable impacts of climate change.

Smallholder farming is not the answer to everything. But smallholders hold the promise to achieve the dual goal of food security in some of the world’s poorest countries while conserving the natural environment that underlies all our existence.

Read about all the benefits of sand dams