Tried and tested: Learning from farmers on adaptation to climate change

Submitted by Julia Barrott | published 5th Oct 2015 | last updated 3rd Jan 2023
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For millennia farmers and pastoralists have been coping with droughts, floods, variable rainfall, pests and general uncertainty – long before climate change became topical. They have built up a vast body of first-hand experience, and a huge reservoir of genetic diversity on which to draw. The international research and policy community, on the other hand, has spent only the last decade developing support strategies for those most vulnerable to the likely impacts of climate change.

The aim of this Gatekeeper paper (download available in the right-hand column of this page) is to avoid energy and effort being expended on re- inventing the wheel; it urges those involved in supporting climate change adaptation to draw much more from the existing strategies and knowledge of the millions of farmers and pastoralists worldwide. Of course, no amount of knowledge based on past experience will help deal with large or extreme changes. But in many cases the existing knowledge and experience of how to cope with current and past climate variability provide a solid grounding for how best to adapt to current and future climate change.

Many of these strategies and knowledge have been documented and supported by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) over the last 40 years, working alongside vulnerable communities and learning from them in an attempt to inform regional, national and global policies. This Gatekeeper paper takes a broad look at some of the current and past work on which IIED researchers have focused their efforts over recent years with a view to exploring how this can inform current adaptation planning efforts at local, national and international levels. 

Key Messages

The paper underscores how measures to increase climate change resilience must view food, energy, water and waste management systems as interconnected and mutually dependent. This holistic approach must also be applied to economic analysis for adaptation planning. Similarly, it is vital to use traditional knowledge and management skills, which can further support adaptation planning.

The authors make three specific policy recommendations for achieving this:

  1. Tackle climate change within an integrated environmental and development framework: A more holistic approach would address climate change adaptation and mitigation simultaneously, and also ensure complementarities between agendas that focus on climate change and those that focus on mainstream development. Economic assessments should also be more complete, and include a wide array of costs and benefits.

  2. Keep locally-led solutions and genuine community benefits central in international climate change agreements and scientific research. Policy makers must take into account traditional knowledge about seed varieties, livestock, crops and land management to enhance adaptive management capabilities. This requires a similarly large shift in high- level policy-making processes.

  3. Challenge power imbalances to ensure local people and their organisations are heard in policy making: Most policy-making processes in poor countries are organised along sectoral lines and are not geared up for strengthening local organisations and federations, building on local knowledge or empowering local people. A shift to more joined-up cross- sectoral policy making and institutional support is required. Lessons also need to be fed up from local and national levels to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – for example communities should be involved in national policy processes such as the National Adaptation Programmes of Action. 

When it comes to climate change adaptation, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. There are generations of first-hand, tried and tested experience in poor countries and a huge body of associated research which can be used to better inform policies on a regional, national and global basis. Bearing in mind the lessons learnt and the policy opportunities highlighted above will ensure we are better prepared for an increasingly extreme and uncertain climate. 

Lessons learnt from IIED’s work for climate change adaptation (in brief)

Examples of each of these points are provided in the report (download available in right-hand column).

Holistic approaches can increase resilience

  • Most policies, institutions, technologies and processes are based on the assumption that systems operate in a linear, throughput manner. IIED research shows that if food, energy, water and waste management systems are all interconnected and mutually dependent they can be much more efficient and resilient (Jones et al., 2011). 
  • A shift to policies and institutions more suited to supporting cyclical systems, circular models of the economy and a more holistic approach to tackling both poverty and climate change will help ensure productivity and also enhance resilience in the face of climate change and other environmental changes.  
  • There is also something of a dangerous dichotomy between mitigation and adaptation in the international climate change policy arena. A holistic approach would tackle climate change adaptation and mitigation simultaneously.
  • Another concern is the important differences and potential conflicts between agendas that focus on climate change and those that focus on mainstream development. 

Economic assessments must also be holistic

  • Demand is high for adaptation cost estimates. IIED research reveals that distinguishing between local adaptation needs and existing livelihood and development needs is near impossible because they are fundamentally intertwined.
  • Demands to identify the exact costs of adaptation in isolation can force distinctions and divisions that do not reflect local realities and, at worst, could lead to maladaptation if not assessed within the context of multiple existing adaptation and livelihood needs.
  • A holistic approach must also be applied to any economic analysis undertaken to inform adaptation planning, as opposed to the usual narrow analyses that focus on more immediate and easily measurable costs and benefits.

Traditional knowledge and management skills are vital 

  • IIED research shows that traditional knowledge of seed varieties, crops, livestock and land management can also support climate change adaptation.
  • However as agricultural biodiversity disappears (FAO, 2011), the genetic basis that allows agriculture to adapt to changing environmental conditions weakens.
  • Intellectual property rights are known to have a negative impact on genetic diversity when expropriated by large companies because local incentives to develop native species and varieties are lost.
  • IIED work to protect community rights to traditional knowledge in Peru, China, India, Kenya and Panama has revealed that hybrid varieties are often less resilient than native ones to the climate change impacts communities are already experiencing (Swiderska, 2009).
  • There is growing evidence that modern commercially produced seed varieties also undermine resilience by creating dependency on external agencies such as large agribusinesses.
  • Traditional knowledge and native varieties show great potential for supporting climate change adaptation in addition to enhancing productivity and food security and also providing mitigation benefits (Swiderska et al., 2011). Our research has identified many farming communities worldwide who are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, and who are using agro-biodiversity and local knowledge in their strategies to adapt.
  • Another area where traditional knowledge is vital is amongst the nomadic pastoralists of the world’s driest lands. Pastoralists have always lived with environmental uncertainty and have developed a diverse range of strategies, institutions and networks to exploit this unpredictability and risk to their advantage. Livestock mobility and the carefully controlled breeding of animals to feed selectively on the best quality pastures highly dispersed in time and space are two of the more critical strategies. Despite their proven value, these strategies are still poorly understood and integrated into policy design.
  • Pastoralism is likely to be even more economically efficient in the face of climate change, which will likely increase environmental uncertainty. But in many instances policies on land, water, representation and credit do not support pastoralist lifestyles.  


Policies that support resilience 

1.Tackle climate change within an integrated environmental and development approach 

Under the UNFCCC, policies such as REDD+ need to be considered alongside those for agriculture. Indeed all agricultural mitigation activities (including work on soil carbon, emissions from livestock production and consumption, methane release from livestock and paddy rice) – whether under the UNFCCC or not – need to integrate lessons on pro-poor sustainable agriculture. Practical opportunities include payments for environmental services (PES) programmes. These can help support sustainable, resource-efficient agriculture-food supply chains which focus on the whole picture and not just climate change. For example, they incorporate the co-benefits of sound environmental management and hence improve ecosystem and community resilience to climate change.

2. Keep locally-led solutions and genuine community benefits central in international climate change agreements and scientific research 

It is the poor who are most vulnerable to climate change – adaptation activities must focus on them. However, current systems for accessing carbon funding are too expensive and complicated for small-scale producers. For example, they require proof of ‘additionality’, which itself is controversial and difficult to define, and the capacity to measure carbon sequestration. Promising emerging new opportunities include:

  • Climate change insurance and carbon labelling schemes such as ‘fairmiles’: these offer more potential for engaging with and benefitting developing country farmers, but this potential needs to be realised and scaled up beyond a few case study communities.

  • The International Air Passenger Adaptation Levy (IAPAL) – a proposed purchase tax on air tickets, the proceeds of which would be dedicated to investment in adaptation – also provides opportunities to reach the most vulnerable (Birch and Chambwera, 2011; Chambwera and Müller, 2008).

Given the value of local knowledge for addressing adaptation, work with local communities must continue, and agricultural research needs to get better at incorporating this local knowledge. Bringing together farmers and scientists will help break the deadlock of language, geography and experience that exists between these two groups (Pimbert, 2011). 

3. Challenge power imbalances to ensure local people and their organisations are heard in policy making 

Many common-sense policies never see the light of day because of powerful interests and numerous ‘revolving doors’ between these interests and government, which effectively block alternative approaches. For example, expropriation of intellectual property rights and plant breeding rights by multinational corporations severely threatens local capacity to adapt by restricting the use of some varieties and promoting a few modern commercial varieties at the expense of traditional crops and practices. Limiting the power of these actors is critical. This could be achieved through:

  • legal action;

  • building coalitions and strengthening social movements – such as the growing number of federations of the urban poor; and

  • improving the quality and availability of evidence-based research. For example, broader economic analyses of the merits of pastoralism – which include not just meat and milk, but health, education, environment and tourism – could well strengthen the argument against powerful agribusiness-oriented alternative land uses. So too could a better understanding of the threats to traditional knowledge and links between this and landscapes, cultural values, customary laws, climate change and the need to protect biocultural systems as a whole. 

Market-based mitigation measures, including those in REDD, must avoid the mistakes made under the Clean Development Mechanism whereby most projects chase the carbon finance and side-line genuine local development benefits. Lessons need to be fed up from local and national levels to the UNFCCC – for example communities should be involved in national policy processes such as the National Adaptation Programmes of Action. 

Further resources

  • Recommended citation

    Reid, H., Chambwera, M., Murray, L. (2013) Tried and tested: Learning from farmers on adaptation to climate change. IIED Gatekeeper Paper 153



    Dr Hannah Reid is a consulting researcher, currently working with the Climate Change Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London. She has over ten years’ experience working on climate change, with particular focus on how best to help those who are most vulnerable cope with its impacts. Email: [email protected]

    Dr Muyeye Chambwera is a technical advisor with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Botswana. His work focuses on sustainable development and climate change. He has previously worked for IIED on the economics of climate change, developing and applying economic methods for climate change adaptation that are suitable to developing countries. Email: [email protected]

    Laurel Murray is a research consultant with a background in both ecology and international relations, who specialises in climate change adaptation on the ground and at international negotiations. Her most recent work focuses on state behaviour in the UNFCCC negotiations as well as research on community-based adaptation. Email: [email protected] 

    The Gatekeeper Series

    The Gatekeeper series of the Natural Resources Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is produced by the Agroecology Team. The series aims to highlight key topics in the field of sustainable natural resource management. Each paper reviews a selected issue of contemporary importance and draws preliminary conclusions for development that are particularly relevant for policymakers, researchers and planners. References are provided to important sources and background material. The series is supported by the UK Department for International Development (DFID). The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily represent those of IIED, DFID, or any of their partners.