The unsung heroes for nature and climate

With a recent IIED survey showing that smallholder farmers are China’s biggest investors in climate and nature action, we call on world leaders gathering in Montreal for the 15th Convention on Biological Diversity conference to strengthen their commitments to locally-led efforts to build a resilient future for nature and people.

Xiaoting Hou Jones's picture Yiching Song's picture
Xiaoting Hou Jones is a senior researcher in IIED's Natural Resources group; Yiching Song is a programme leader of UNEP-IEMP, and founder of Farmer Seeds Network in China
07 December 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
Woman, wearing a hat and a basket on her back, picks vegetables

Farmer picking organic vegetables in Guzhai village, Guangxi, China (Photo: Zhitong Xin)

China’s rural landscape is shaped by more than 200 million smallholder farming households. Working on less than one hectare of land each, they collectively provide 90% of China’s agricultural job opportunities and produce 80% of its food.

Not only are they key for the country’s food security, they also act as stewards for the plants, animals and forests on and around their farms. Living in millions of villages across vast ecologically and culturally diversified areas, they have worked with nature for generations, adapting to climate change through their traditional biocultural systems.

But accelerating climate change is causing new challenges for famers and their communities. Rapid changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, and more frequent extreme weather events are affecting crop and animal productivity, food security, income and overall wellbeing.

For example, record heatwaves and prolonged drought this summer across South China reduced the production of many fruits and vegetables, and forced many farmers to travel long distances to secure water and work in their field in temperatures over 40°C.

Local champions for nature and climate

Despite those challenges, farmers are finding innovative ways to adapt, and nature has been their best ally. Foodthink, a non-profit organisation that spreads knowledge about sustainable food systems in China, has conducted numerous field visits, interviewed and led many discussions with farmers in 2022. These conversations show that diversification and ecological farming are among their key adaptation strategies.

Extreme weather events and unpredictable climate patterns may negatively impact one crop while benefiting others. If farmers diversify their crops and livestock and spread the risks, their total income and production are less likely to be impacted.

At the same time, diversified ecological farming practices reduce the chance of pest outbreaks and improve soil quality to better maintain moisture levels in droughts and floods, further enhancing farm resilience. Ecological farms also have more natural vegetation, such as trees, wildflowers and grasses, on and around them. These preserve water, improve soil quality and stabilise the soil, helping farmers cope with changing weather.

Such diversified farms usually include ancient crop or livestock varieties that have evolved with the changing weather over time, and can better adapt to changing weather patterns than varieties created in a laboratory to maximise production under certain conditions.

Working with nature to adapt to climate change can be the most cost-effective strategy for climate change adaptation. It is also often the only affordable defence for smallholders in extreme weather conditions. For example, they can use straw as mulch during heatwaves to help retain moisture in the soil.

Recent research (article behind a paywall) also shows that smallholder farms have more ways of working with nature to adapt to climate change than large-scale farms, where the scale of operation imposes more cropping system and marketing constraints that work against diversification strategies.

The biggest investors in adaptation

Farmers invest their time and money in working with nature to adapt to climate change to ensure the long-term sustainability of their farming practices and their families’ wellbeing.

A recent IIED, Farmers’ Seed Network China and Foodthink survey of more than 200 farmers around the country found that, on average, each farming household invests 20-40% of its annual income in trialling and implementing ecological farming practices to adapt to climate change, with farmers in remote and climate vulnerable areas spending around 60-80% of their income.

The survey also showed that smallholder farmers spend more than US$2,900 per ha per year on nature and climate actions. In total, China’s 200 million smallholder farmers invest more than $280 billion annually in climate change adaptation, dwarfing the £950 million pledged for adaptation at COP27.

And this figure can be a gross underestimate, as it does not consider the unpaid labour farmers spend on these climate and nature actions which is estimated at an average of 80 days per year, with vulnerable families spending more than 60% of their working hours on adaptation actions.

Supporting these investors

These locally-led efforts to build a resilient future for nature and people are being undermined by unfavourable public policies and powerful market forces that seek profit maximisation at the expense of nature.  

This has intensified in the past 20 years, as diverse and resilient agriculture landscapes, heritages and practices managed by smallholder farming communities – such as terrace farming, fish and rice intercropping, crop rotation and agroforestry – are replaced by monocultural industrial production systems that are extremely vulnerable to climate change and threatening the health of people and planet.

IIED has been working with those smallholder farmers and their collective organisations to turn the tide on those powerful forces, for example, through our work with Forest and Farm Facility which provides direct support to smallholder farmers as they invest in diversification for climate resilience. But those farmers deserve more support.

As world leaders gather in Montreal to adopt the new gobal biodiversity framework, we are calling on them to strengthen their commitments to support local innovators who are leading the fight for food security, nature and climate change.

As a starting point, more governments should commit to providing long-term patient finance to strengthen community-based organisations, such as Farmers’ Seed Network and Foodthink, that bring together smallholder farmers to enhance their collective voices and actions, bridge missing links between stakeholders for capacity building, secure better market access and offer technical support for a better and more resilient future.