Diversification for climate resilience: a global priority

Arguing that smallholder diversification is crucial for planetary food security, Duncan Macqueen reports on how an international conference and learning exchange in Viet Nam in September offered farm producer organisations and governments solutions to help smallholders flourish in the face of economic inequality.

Duncan Macqueen's picture
Insight by 
Duncan Macqueen
Principal researcher and leader (forests) in IIED's Natural Resources research group
10 October 2022
Countdown to COP15
A series of insights raising the profile of locally-led action on the road to and after the COP15 global biodiversity conference
A group of people form a circle in the forest. One person is speaking

A member of the Binh Minh Cooperative (producing FSC certified timber) explains to farmer leaders from 31 countries how he manages his complex organic agroforestry system (Photo: IIED, Duncan Macqueen)

‘The human worlds’ – episode five of David Attenborough’s ‘Green Planet’ series – should be compulsory viewing for anyone concerned about human survival on Earth.

Thanks to expanding industrial monoculture, two in five wild plant species face extinction today. Humans once derived nutrition from more than 7,000 species. Now, we depend on just 80. Of these, nine account for 66% of total global crop production and just three for 50% of all the calories we consume.

A planet at risk

Attenborough’s masterpiece highlights the nutritional and food security implications of this agrobiodiversity loss. Monoculture – whether on farms or in tree plantations – risks production failure on a planetary scale. Climate change increases seasonal variabilities, undermining monoculture planting cycles, while pest and disease outbreaks, which spread rapidly through vast single-crop systems, are more common in a warming world.

Storms, floods, droughts, fires and other extreme events also wreak havoc on fragile global supply chains, and our dependence on industrial-scale monoculture supply chains puts global food security at risk. Throw in a pandemic or war in a major food production centre, and the risk becomes visible to all, as food prices rocket.

Diversity is the cornerstone of resilience in natural systems and forest and farm production systems. So, if greater and more localised production diversity would reduce these risks, why do forest and farm producers not opt for it? 

A question of economics

Conventional wisdom has it that large-scale monocultures are more productive. But this is simply untrue. Smallholder farms (under two hectares) produce 30-34% of the world’s food supply on 24% of its gross agricultural area. And not only are small farms more productive per unit area, they also tend to have greater agrobiodiversity.

That smaller farms are more productive and agrobiodiverse makes intuitive sense. On-farm productivity is based on the photosynthetic conversion of sunlight into plant material. Careful spatial planting of root crops, cereals, fodder, and fruit, spice and timber trees, as practiced in multi-layered smallholder agroforestry, is more likely than a single, industrial-level crop to capture and convert more of that sunlight into useful production.

So, if monocultures are not more productive, why do they proliferate? The answer lies not in ecology, but in economic inequality. Larger, wealthier landowners have the power to consolidate their holdings and pursue corporatisation and monopolisation.

And the larger, wealthier and more powerful the landowner, the more industrial-scale mechanisation increases economic scale efficiency and per-area returns from almost any chosen crop component.

Devoting effort to one uniform cash crop increases cost-efficiencies for that crop, albeit at the expense of overall ecological production. Neighbouring smallholders cannot compete on price, falling back instead on their ecologically more productive agrobiodiversity for subsistence, rather than commercial markets. This exacerbates wealth and power disparities, further excluding smallholders from commercial supply chains.

As industrial-scale mechanisation is not compatible with complex multi-layered agroforestry systems, it leads to substantial losses in overall ecological productivity and agrobiodiversity, threatening global nutritional and food security. And as the global population grows, we urgently need to reverse this. 

Solutions for restoring agrobiodiversity

So, how can smallholders’ generally more productive and agrobiodiverse land use compete economically with cash crop monoculture? Drawing on a recent IIED publication ‘Diversification for climate resilience’, the Viet Nam Farmers’ Union hosted an international conference and learning exchange in Hanoi to address this issue.

Co-organised by the Forest and Farm Facility – managed together by Food and Agriculture Organization, IIED, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Agricord – ‘Saving our future: investing in locally led diversification for climate resilience and food security’ gathered 206 smallholder forest and farm producer organisations (FFPOs) leaders and their government counterparts from 31 countries.

Participants debated the scientific evidence, showcased their agrobiodiverse products at a ‘share fair’ led by the Non-Timber Forest Product Exchange Programme, and visited four forest and farm cooperatives to see solutions in practice.

1. Political will for fairer land tenure

Political will is crucial. If free market economics prevail, disparities in landownership, wealth and power will increase. Building on legal start-points such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, governments should assume responsibility to redistribute land, wealth and power more equally, as this will benefit food security and climate resilience in the long term.

Men and women stand behind a stand with products. A man smiles at the camera

Forest farmers at the Saving our Future share fair show how organising into FFPOs enhances on-farm resilience to climate change by enabling them to aggregate, package, label and market diverse products (Photo: IIED, Duncan Macqueen)

2. Strong smallholder organisations

Organisation is vital for maintaining agrobiodiversity. Strength in numbers empowers smallholders to defend their land rights and improves market access. The share fair highlighted the huge variety of commercial smallholder products, from food to fuelwood and charcoal, timber, textiles, cosmetics and medicinal plant products. But it is by organising into FFPOs that they can achieve economic scale and gain market access.

Grouped together, small quantities of product from many smallholder farms gain sufficient volume to penetrate primarily domestic markets. Making diverse, traditional varieties of food available at scale in local markets also helps maintain nutritional diversity and cultural cuisine, which in turn helps maintain market demand for diverse products, encouraging farmers to diversify.

Many regional farmers’ associations, such as the Asian Farmers’ Association (AFA), also run cultural cuisine competitions to spread the traditional recipes that drive diversification.

3. Enhanced marketing

The share fair showed how FFPOs’ high-quality production, packaging and labelling standards enhance market access. Many FFPOs have pioneered innovative shared labels that can make credible claims about local origin, ecological sustainability, fair benefit distribution and traceability.

Participatory guarantee schemes of this sort allow low-cost, second-party audits and labelling against standards suited to domestic markets. Establishing high-quality local and ethical marketing allows smallholders to sidestep their industrial-scale competitors on production costs.

Showcasing producer cooperatives

A field trip for participants reinforced these solutions, showcasing four producer cooperatives that are diversifying for climate resilience. These include the Yen Duong Cooperative in Bac Kan province.

It aggregates, packages and markets sticky rice, seasonal vegetables, organic herbs, vermicelli and farmed fish, and is developing an ecotourism hiking tour and viewing platform high in the mountains.

A second example, the Cinnamon and Star Anise Cooperative in Yen Bai province, has partnered with Vina Samex Joint Stock Company. It aggregates, processes and packages cinnamon, star anise and a range of other spices that cooperative members and associated member farmers can grow alongside cinnamon, improving their market options.   

Strengthening existing facilities

The world urgently needs to maintain agrobiodiversity to build climate resilience. Projections suggest that climate change will reduce production of maize, potato, rice and wheat – the world’s main food calorie sources – by 5% by 2050 in many of the most populous southern regions where smallholders play a high role in food production. Already, the war in Ukraine has reduced access to chemical fertiliser and food in many of these regions.

To avoid food insecurity and famine, countries must secure land tenure, strengthen FFPOs, enhance the agrobiodiversity of their production systems, and develop markets for their crops. This requires additional resourcing of the Tenure Facility and the Forest and Farm Facility, which are designed to do just that.