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Smallholder farmers are providing up to 70 percent of the world’s food using traditional methods that may have been passed down for generations. However, the conditions that today’s farmers have inherited bear little resemblance to those of their parents and grandparents. Climate change is altering the volume and frequency of rain, flooding and droughts are becoming more pronounced and prolonged, and temperatures are rising. Subsistence farmers must adapt to these conditions to protect their livelihood and way of life. 

Farmers are responding to climate change with agroecological innovation, tailoring traditional methods and testing crop varieties to counter the effects of climate change in sustainable ways.  For instance, they are improving the health of depleted soil by mulching in animal and green manure, planting nitrogen-enriching plants and trees to boost crop production, and reforesting areas of land to create biodiverse microenvironments. These methods not only improve growing conditions, but also aid in carbon sequestration, critical to the global effort to reduce greenhouse gases. Agroecological farmers do not use commercially produced inputs, due to resource constraints or by personal choice, which decreases capital requirements while protecting their ecosystem.

Due to several overlapping factors, such as resource and time constraints, smallholder farmers do not commonly document their performance nor basic environmental measurements such as soil health, water usage, biodiversity or amount of crops harvested  per acre (yield). Smallholder farmers may not place a high value on tracking these measurements, but the sustainable and industrial agriculture communities do, in order to demonstrate progress over time. Smallholder and subsistence farmers rely on memory for historic data, such as volume of rain, crop production, or climate conditions. Without collecting this information over time, smallholder farmers are unable to counter claims from industrial agriculture that industrial farms are more productive; smallholder farmers may produce higher yields with less environmental damage but are left out of the solution to feed their countries’ growing population.

Farmer innovations, knowledge and experience often have a limited reach. This information is typically communicated orally farmer-to-farmer, within the family or village. This vital information needs to be preserved and exchanged with other communities and the broader sustainable agriculture community. This knowledge also needs to be saved for the future, as the younger generation is leaving the labor-intensive work of the farm for employment in the city. In exchange, farmers need to be able to tap into resources and knowledge they may lack access to from their remote locations.

Nonprofit organizations like A Growing Culture are aiding communities by capturing farmer knowledge in an exchange of ideas, which is shared within the community as well as more broadly via the internet. For example, they sponsor farmer-led workshops, which may be documented via digital video, to share skills and ideas. Successful initiatives in the communities that A Growing Culture works with focus on knowledge sharing, however there are currently no comparable methods of measuring their environmental benefits over time. Quantifying environmental progress can help farmers in 2 ways.

The first is a means of communicating the success of their work to promote practices and participation in a ‘knowledge economy.” For community leaders who are promoting sustainable and local practices, or striving to meet environmental objectives, quantified progress provides evidence to support their claims. Focusing on supply chain or yield to improve farmers’ lives is good, but the farmers native knowledge is extremely valuable to the sustainable agriculture community.

Second, the ability to demonstrate progressive benefits to the environment through record keeping could open up additional opportunities in the form of investments, subsidies, and grants. This approach is valuable for farmers who are looking to expand to new markets to sell crops, join corporate supply contracts, or diversify their income. Studies on smallholder farmers and record keeping (i.e. crops harvested, the cost of inputs, and income) show that maintaining written records opens up access to credit and other investments including sustainability certifications.

Across the global sustainable agriculture community, major actors including governments, investors, companies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are looking to demonstrate progress towards environmental objectives. Companies are facing increased public scrutiny to deliver more transparent supply chains and support farmers with sustainability certifications. Similarly, companies and investors have growing interests in demonstrating social and environmental progress as well as financial returns. Numerous grants exist to support smallholders, but the NGOs that distribute them need to demonstrate progress to their donors. A growing number of organizations are required to show results-based performance to their investors or sponsors to validate funds are being spent with positive impact; results need to be collected and reported.

The growing interest in sustainable agriculture is partially driven by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, which are a set of 17 global goals that focus on reducing poverty, improving education, and sustainable development, among others. Each goal has individual targets, 169 in total, that are relevant to smallholder farmers, including protecting biodiversity, access to clean water, and food security; all of these targets are challenged by climate change.

The emphasis of sustainable development is on reducing poverty without compromising environmental ecosystems. Smallholder farmers who can demonstrate the environmental benefits of their sustainable farming practices may have an increased opportunity to participate in this solution. However, to participate, farmers will need to measure their benefits and track them over the course of years in a systematic way; without this data, they may not be able to access resources offered to those aiding in this global effort.

Image credit: One Acre Fund