From exotic fruits to climate-friendly rice: this is how farmers around the world are adapting to climate change

Climate change is forcing farmers to experiment with new crops and cattle. From the mango-growers of Sicily to Bangladesh’s climate-friendly rice, here are the most ingenious examples.

T he Boran people of northern Kenya are so synonymous with cattle-herding that it’s often said: ‘To be Boran is to have cattle.’ For generations, these peaceful pastoralists of Marsabit County have led their herds across the dusty landscape in search of water and fodder. 

In recent years, however, growing aridity and soil erosion has made the job tougher, forcing herders to spend backbreaking hours driving their cows to meagre water resources. In the circumstances, many are swapping their beloved beasts for another form of livestock: the camel.

Historically, the camel was seen as inferior to the cow – so much so that some Boran even refuse to name it, calling it ‘the long-necked thing’. But with the creatures able to survive on minimal water and tough scrub vegetation, and still produce up to six times as much nutrient-rich milk, climate change is forcing the herders to put historical prejudices aside. In the decade up to 2009, the number of camels in Kenya rose from 800,000 to 3 million.

‘Transformational adaptation’ is the name given to this process of sudden, significant change in practices, and it’s happening across the planet as farmers shift to new crops, livestock or even completely new forms of agriculture. Let’s look at a few of the most striking examples.

Oranges (and lemons) are not the only fruit

Italy’s southern island – the ‘football’ to the mainland’s boot – is famed for its citrus groves. In recent years, however, visitors driving through the Sicilian countryside have been likely to see mangoes, passion fruit and even papaya rising among the ubiquitous orange and lemon trees.

A 1.5°C temperature increase in the last century has led farmers to experiment with an array of tropical fruit, with bananas now growing happily on the outskirts of capital Palermo, and avocado farms thriving in sight of Mount Etna.

Climate change and cheap foreign competition for citrus fruits is forcing the shift, but it remains to be seen whether Sicily becomes a prime spot for papaya and passion fruit long-term. The tropical crops’ high water demands are set to conflict with the island’s diminishing year-on-year rainfall.

Sicily’s new fruit cocktail isn’t the only adaptive change taking place in Italy. Amid reports of a 57% drop in the country’s olive harvest thanks to climate change, the ‘olive line’ is graduating slowly northward, with small producers even managing to grow in the Alps.

Ambitious Sicilian farmers, meanwhile, have an eye on the future. ‘We want to be the first coffee producer in Italy,’ says one.

Bean in the wars

Add that to the list of worries for the coffee-growers of Costa Rica. A crop that generated $308 million in revenue in 2016 for the country – employing some 150,000 at harvest time – is troubled by erratic yields thanks to drought, flooding and temperature rises. In the country’s Guanacaste region, farmers report yields falling by as much as 50% in the last quarter of a century.

In a move that may give Sicilian farmers pause for thought, some are trying out another crop: oranges. More resilient to the variable temperatures, high winds and erratic rainfall that come with climate change, oranges were first grown 25 years ago when seeds were handed out by a coffee cooperative after a poor coffee harvest. Since then, the crop has taken root: experts estimate that farmers in the small Central American nation could soon be handling as many as 80-100 million oranges a year.

Testing the waters

Over to the rice fields of Asia, where the cheap and nutritious staple crop of Vietnam, Thailand and their neighbours has one definite disadvantage: its climate impact.

Traditional methods of growing rice – in flooded fields known as ‘paddies’ – produces microbes that release dangerous quantities of methane as they grow and multiply. So extreme is the problem that rice is estimated to be responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions annually.

To combat this, an organisation called the International Rice Research Institute is educating farmers in Bangladesh and Vietnam in a cultivation method known as alternate wetting and drying (AWD). By draining the paddy fields two or three times over the growing season, farmers can limit the release of climate-damaging methane, and at the same reduce costs for farmers both in terms of irrigation water and fuel for irrigation pumps.

The new method could have huge implications in drought-hit areas where groundwater is scarce. The Bangladeshi government is looking to scale up AWD to 20% of its total rice cultivation by 2030, in an effort to meet its UN-agreed Intended Nationally Determined Contributions to greenhouse gas reduction.

Finding a way out of maize 

Meanwhile, after years of disappointing rains, maize farmers in Zimbabwe’s dry Matabeleland province are making a surprising lateral move.

Growers in the drought-prone African country have sidestepped into vegetables, including tomatoes, cabbages, butternut squash, sweet peppers and onions. Some are even experimenting with watermelons. 

Maintaining the new crops requires “climate-smart agriculture” (CSA): modern, water-conserving farming methods like mulching, zero tillage and drip irrigation. The last of these – a process of supplying water directly to the roots of plants to minimise evaporation – can cut usage by 90% over surface irrigation, according to farmers’ estimates.

Procuring the equipment necessary for enough farmers to shift to CSA en masse could be a challenge for government in a country hit by economic crisis, where recent freak weather conditions have left two million without access to clean water. But its promise is clear as farmers look to adapt to more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns.

The ideas presented in this article aim to inspire adaptation action – they are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Global Center on Adaptation.

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