Farmers have already fed the future

by Jeremy Cherfas on April 3, 2013

Edward Carr, in his pursuit of Doing Food Security Differently, has taken a leaf out of William Gibson‘s book to declare: “The future is already here β€” it’s just not very evenly distributed”. Carr is talking specifically about climate change, and rather than anguishing over whether the future can be fed, he asserts that “Farmers in the Global South have already fed the future”.

[M]any [farmers] around the world, have already seen the future – that is, they have already lived through at least one, if not several, seasons like those we expect to become the norm some decades in the future. These farmers survived those seasons, and learned from them, adjusting their expectations and strategies to account for the possibility of recurrence.

Their methods aren’t perfect, but Carr suggests that by relying on local indicators and their knowledge and experience, farmers have weathered some pretty bad years, at the very least staving off catastrophe. And maybe they would best be helped not by an entirely new shiny whizz-bang future but by a better understanding of the indicators they use and how and when they may cease to be useful.

If farmers use the flowering of a particular tree as a signal to plant a crop, then at some point, as climate changes, the signal will come at an inappropriate time, or not at all.

[W]e should be building upon the capacities that already exist. For example, we can plan for the eventual failure of local indicators — we can study the indicators to understand under what conditions their behaviors will change, identify likely timeframes in which such changes are likely to occur, and create of new tools and sources of information that will be there for farmers when their current sources of information no longer work. We should be designing these tools and that information with the farmers, answering the questions they have (as opposed to the questions we want to ask). We should be building on local capacity, not succumbing to crisis narratives that suggest that these farmers have little capacity, either to manage their current environment or to change with the environment.

Our friend Jacob van Etten has been developing the idea of crowdsourcing crop improvement. That, and climate analogues, can preselect varieties for a future climate from a similar climate here and now. Is there also scope for crowdsourcing local indicators that will work in a different place in the future?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Luigi Guarino April 3, 2013 at 4:22 pm

So does that mean this sort of thing is perhaps less than useful than it makes out?

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Jacob April 3, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Yes, there is a lot of citizen science around phenology. For instance, http://www.natuurkalender.nl/ .

Also, research on farmer perceptions, for instance the work of Lindsay Stringer at Leeds.

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Jeremy Cherfas April 4, 2013 at 11:03 am

I think the idea is to go a bit beyond citizen science — or maybe to sharpen the questions a little. So, if this bit of phenology is no longer reliable, what could we use as a substitute.

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Jacob April 5, 2013 at 2:30 pm

I get it. Transferring local indicators to analogue climates. I think it will be difficult to do this if rain becomes more irregular and less predictable across all climates along a climatic gradient. Maybe we should take irregularity into account to determine analogue climates then…

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