Climate Smart Agriculture: Lessons from Engaging with Smallholders as Co-researchers by Sara Burbi and Mike Jones

In recent years, farmers have been placed under a growing pressure from markets and government to improve business competitiveness and simultaneously reduce the environmental impacts of farming. Adaptation to such demands can become increasingly difficult for farmers Especially in terms of collaborative action research where farmers and scientists work together to improve farming practice and influence agricultural policy making.

An example of a collaborative research project between farmers and scientists can be one that  integrates farmers’ knowledge with scientific understanding  of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions mitigation. GHG emissions originate from a variety of natural and human-led activities, contributing to the greenhouse effect that is responsible for variations in atmospheric temperature and other phenomena which are globally described as climate change.  According to DEFRA, the agricultural sector is estimated to account for about 9% of the total GHG emissions in the United Kingdom. Emissions include 32% of methane (CH4) primarily from ruminant digestion processes and the production and use of manure and slurry, 61% of nitrous oxide (N2O) primarily from fertilisers use, and less than 10% of carbon dioxide (CO2) primarily from energy used for fuel and heating.

Quantitative scientific research provides useful strategies for reduction of GHG emissions from livestock farms, such as introducing legumes and avoiding excess protein, improving feed conversion efficiency, improving housing management, adopting specific manure storage and treatment conditions, shorter rotational grazing pattern and optimum soil and effluent management.

Photo by mmatins via Flickr

The adoption of on-farm innovation based on scientific recommendations depends not only on its cost-effectiveness, but also on farmers’ perceptions of climate change and the dynamics behind farmers’ decision-making. Farmers tend to value practical knowledge acquired through personal experience or that of individuals close to the farmer, who share the same views and beliefs.

A study that engaged a group of small-scale livestock farmers in the South West and West Midlands regions in England provided valuable information for both farmers and scientists on the potential for adoption of GHG emissions mitigation strategies and the impact that it can have on building more resilient farming systems if scientific and practical knowledge are well intergrated. The study set out with a series of knowledge transfer activities in which farmers received support from scientists on how to improve farm management practices to reduce GHG emissions. Farmers were encouraged to share their views on the feasibility of the solutions proposed, as well as their opinion on climate change action and possible barriers and drivers for change. Farmers were also invited to a meeting where farming practice was discussed with other farmers and researchers.

Results of the study showed that in spite of practical obstacles to on-farm innovation (e.g. financial investments, planning permissions) farmers appreciated the interaction with researchers, but were confused by and mistrust of government, particularly in relation to the way climate change science is communicated to the general public. The lack of flexibility in agricultural policies was important in farmers’ decision-making because of their need to respond to weather and markets on a seasonal and annual basis.

Farmers preferred practical solutions obtained through consistent, clear and transparent information from advisory services. In fact, the source of information on GHG emissions mitigation and the way it was presented to them were key factors in their acceptance of advice. Participatory activities where scientists engaged with farmers on translational research were particularly well accepted. The study suggests that peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and engaging directly with scientists in order to access knowledge on climate change action is more preferred, rather than relying on intermediaries with various degrees of earned credibility, such as agricultural consultants or government advisors.

These results are particularly useful for practice in low-income countries, where the need for targeted advice on climate smart agricultural practices meets the challenges of extension services that would engage with smallholders on  a variety of conditions, including poor infrastructure and low social capital. The approach used in the British study supported the finding that scientists should not carry out research for the farmers, but rather with the farmers, in particular with smallholders in developing countries, acknowledging farmers’ contribution as co-researchers in a joint effort to develop on-farm innovation.

During the study, a group of post-graduate students from a number of African countries joined the discussions with the British farmers.  Primarily, their interest was linked to the possibility of transferring the approach of this study to pastoralist systems in Africa. They found the knowledge sharing activities and engaging with scientists to be extremely beneficial for creating a direct link between scientific advice and the results of its application at the farm level.

50% of the farmers in the study adopted changes in practices that are expected to reduce the farms’ environmental impact.  67% of the farmers continued knowledge sharing activities outside of the study. In its turn, it is highly important for researchers to establish successful two-way communication with farmers and engage them as co-researchers whose knowledge is valuable. Such  cooperation on the societal level has potential to strengthen  social and cultural capacity and lead to more cohesive interactions.

Workshop by COBAM, photo by CIFOR via Flickr

Networks of influence such as farmers groups or associations represent a source of knowledge for farmers as well as an effective way to disseminate knowledge and innovation among them. In this context, “translational research” that aims to link formal scientific knowledge to practice can help scientists in to establish  effective two-way communication channels with farmers.

This approach is particularly useful in multidisciplinary socio-environmental studies, allowing for the practical application of complex formal knowledge such as climate change science. Translational research is often associated with participatory action research, which considers social and cultural capital as drivers for change. The key feature of participatory action research with small-holders in low-income countries is consistent and transparent communication between researchers and farmers.  If performed successfully, it creates stronger social interactions and more effective knowledge sharing, leading to improvements in the sustainability of farm practices and their effectiveness within the context of climate smart agriculture.  

Authors Biographies

Sara Burbi

Sara Burbi is a currently completing a PhD in Climate Change and Agriculture at Coventry University, England. She is a qualified veterinary surgeon (University of Pisa, Italy) and holds a Masters in International Rural Development from the Royal Agricultural University, England. Sara has worked in Latin America and Europe on projects addressing issues related to sustainable rural livelihoods with particular focus on small-scale farmers’ engagement and knowledge exchange programmes.

Mike Jones

Mike Jones is currently working with the Swedish Biodiversity Centre developing their strategy for transdisciplinary research in partnership with land and environmental management organisations; creating professional development courses in the application of complexity science to natural resource management; and developing resilience stewardship networks. Part of this work is focused on innovation for transformational change in the production and marketing of food.

Selected further reading:

 Letty, B., Noordin, Q., Magagi, S., and Waters-Bayer, A. (2011) “Chapter 5. Farmers Take the Lead in Research and Development” In: “2011 State of the World. Innovations that Nourish the Planet. A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society” The Worldwatch Institute. Earthscan. London, 2011.

DEFRA (2012) “Summary of the Key Findings from the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2012.” Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Department of the Environment Northern Ireland. Crown copyright 2012.

IPCC (2007) “Fourth assessment report: Climate change 2007.” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Mapfumo, P., Adjei-Nsiah, S., Mtambanengwe, F., Chikowo, R., and Giller, K. E. (2013) Participatory Action Research (PAR) as an Entry Point for Supporting Climate Change Adaptation by Smallholder Farmers in Africa. Environmental Development 5(0)