Climate Change and Agriculture: Why are Smallholder Farmers Vulnerable?

As global temperatures rise, smallholder farmers are among those most vulnerable. What is the impact of climate change on agriculture? Learn how farmers are affected by climate change and what TechnoServe is doing to help them adapt.

Sustainable farming methods are oneGuar farmer Bhanwarlal Sharma in India

It’s official – 2023 was the hottest year on record. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth’s average land and ocean surface temperature was 1.18 degrees Celsius (2.12 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels last year. And there’s a one in three chance that 2024 will be even warmer. 

Climate Change and Agriculture

What are the climate impacts on the world’s more than 500 million smallholder farmers? The effects are tangible – from the money they earn from their crops to the food they put on the table for their families. Learn about a few ways climate change impacts these farmers and what TechnoServe is doing to help them adapt. 

Cocoa grown in West Africa. Part of a blog post on climate change and agriculture.
Cocoa grown in Côte d’Ivoire. (TechnoServe / James Kendi).

How can climate change contribute to food shortages?

  • Higher temperatures lead to lower crop yields
  • More frequent and severe extreme weather events destroy food crops 
  • New and more prevalent plant diseases and pests emerge, harming crops
  • Livestock productivity is reduced 
  • Increased post-harvest crop losses 

Higher temperatures lead to lower crop yields in many regions 

In regions close to the Equator, even small temperature and precipitation changes have reduced crop yields for many smallholder farmers. Higher average temperatures have also caused an increase in water demand, reduced soil moisture, and water stress in many countries. 

All of this has profound implications for farmers’ incomes and food security. India and West Africa are two areas that will be hit hardest. Scientists expect crop yields to decrease by 2.6% to 2.9% by 2050 because of impacts from climate change. 

To help smallholder farmers cope with rising temperatures, TechnoServe trains them on climate-smart agricultural practices. We also help them access technology and supplies to improve climate resilience, such as drip irrigation and drought-resistant seed varieties.

In India, TechnoServe worked with smallholder guar farmers to improve their productivity and build climate resilience by adopting agronomic and groundwater-neutral best practices in guar cultivation. In Ethiopia, TechnoServe implemented an innovative water management solution with coffee wet mill owners, which included reducing water usage, separating the coffee pulp from the wastewater, and planting vetiver grass wetlands.

A coffee farm in Puerto Rico five years after Hurricane Maria. Photo: (TechnoServe / Ashley Thompson)
A coffee farm in Puerto Rico five years after Hurricane Maria. (TechnoServe / Ashley Thompson).

More frequent and severe extreme climate events

Smallholder farmers are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events, including hurricanes, floods, and droughts. Most farmers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America practice rain-fed agriculture. Having no irrigation system in place makes them particularly susceptible to droughts. The success of their harvest depends on how much rainfall they get. Extreme weather events can destroy an entire harvest, leaving farmers without a reliable source of income.

In Uganda, TechnoServe partnered with Nile Breweries Limited (a subsidiary of AB InBev, the world’s largest brewing company) and the Sustainable Food Lab to identify potential climate risks and intervention strategies for sorghum and barley farmers. We recommended installing additional weather stations to help farmers identify and prepare for extreme weather events, and partnering with forecasting providers.

New and more prevalent plant diseases and pests emerge

Climate change has caused changes in temperature and precipitation patterns around the world, meaning that pests and plant diseases can flourish in new areas. Pests and plant diseases often move from low to high altitudes and from low latitudes to high latitudes. Pests, pathogens, and weeds cause the loss of between 20% to 40% of the world’s food supply each year.

In Central America, a severe outbreak of coffee leaf rust, known as “la roya” in Spanish, destroyed almost 15% of the region’s coffee production for the 2012 to 2013 growing year. TechnoServe worked with farmers to use organic pesticides and other effective and environmentally friendly methods to fight plant diseases and pests. For example, we taught coffee farmers how to use a coffee berry borer trap, a simple contraption made from a plastic bottle that reduces pests.

Cattle ranchers in Nicaragua learn techniques for increasing their climate resilience. (TechnoServe / Olivia Sakai).
Cattle ranchers in Nicaragua learn techniques for increasing their climate resilience. (TechnoServe / Olivia Sakai).

Lowered livestock productivity on the farm

Farmers with livestock are also impacted by climate change. Changes in temperature and precipitation often lead to reduced feed quantity and quality. For example, during the dry season, farmers sometimes struggle to grow enough forage for their cattle because of poor soil quality, high temperatures, and minimal rainfall.

Without enough high-quality forage, the cows produce very little milk, and what little they produce is low quality. Farmers are often forced to sell their cattle for low prices or supplement the cows’ diet with purchased feed. 

TechnoServe helped farmers in Nicaragua adopt intensive silvopastoral systems, which encourage the integration of trees, bushes, and grasses into grazing land. Ultimately, the land becomes healthier and more productive, which leads to healthier, more productive cows and higher incomes for farmers.

Increased post-harvest crop losses

One-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted each year, significantly impacting the environment and food security. Climate change exacerbates this problem, particularly for highly perishable products such as fruits and vegetables. Higher temperatures and new and worsening pests make it difficult for farmers to reduce their post-harvest losses.

In Nigeria, TechnoServe taught farmers how to use evaporative cooling chambers to keep perishable food fresh and set up in-home food processing units. Cooling chambers preserve fresh tomatoes, while in-home processing allows farmers to turn their fresh tomatoes into paste or dried forms. Doing so extends the shelf life of the fruit and increases its market value.

It’s evident that agri-food systems must be an important part of future climate solutions. TechnoServe is working toward this vision through our Regenerate 30 commitment. This bold commitment aims to put farmers and small businesses at the heart of the solution. By 2030, this movement will benefit 30 million people, cut 30 million tons of CO2e, and strengthen the protection, management, or restoration of 30 million acres of land and water.