By James Ochieng

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged US$ 315 million to the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) to help hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers adapt to a surge of climate threats now imperiling the global fight against hunger and poverty.

There are 500 million smallholder farmers and livestock keepers in low-income countries, the majority of whom are women facing a rising tide of climate threats that impede their ability to support their families and provide food for billions of consumers. Despite the magnitude of the crisis, there are few resources available to help them adapt.

When smallholder farmers have access to agricultural innovations, good seeds, fertilizer, livestock breeds and vaccines, and functioning markets, they can produce more than they consume, gain income from the surpluses, and attain a better life for themselves and their children. African countries, economic growth in the agricultural sector is more than twice more effective at reducing poverty than growth in other sectors.

“Africa’s most important crop is maize, and already many farmers are planting new varieties of maize that can produce a good harvest even in drought conditions. Similarly, new varieties of beans can handle both drought and high temperatures, and crops like cassava, sweet potatoes, and millet have always done well in challenging environments, especially if farmers use varieties that can resist pests and disease and tolerate heat,” reads a statement by Rodger Voorhies President, Global Growth & Opportunity, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Sub-Saharan Africa, where most people work in agriculture, accounts for only 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet less than 2% of global public funding for climate-related work targets the needs of smallholder farmers. Most of this funding is focused on reducing emissions.

According to Mark Suzman, Chief Executive Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, climate change poses two distinct challenges. First, to mitigate its worst effects in the years to come, our global civilization needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.

“Given that the world currently emits about 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year, this might be the toughest task humanity has ever faced. But we can accomplish it if we start working toward that goal now. In his new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, our co-chair Bill Gates lays out a comprehensive road map for reducing global emissions to net-zero and points to where additional innovation is needed to succeed,” Suzman said in a statement.

Given that COVID-19 has plunged as many as 31 million people into extreme poverty and many nations are facing a daunting climb toward economic recovery, agriculture’s role as a proven path out of poverty is more important than ever. But unfortunately, this path is critically threatened by the accelerating impacts of climate change on agriculture.

With this new pledge, CGIAR which has been delivering high-impact solutions to farmers in low-income countries for 50 years has secured over half a billion dollars in 2021 to develop a wide array of climate-smart innovations, like stress-tolerant crop varieties, climate forecasting services and new strategies for restoring degrading lands to improve productivity.

In addition, as the world leaders focus in harnessing agricultural science for better lives, CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) is a critical piece of the puzzle. It is currently working to accelerate climate solutions for food, land, and water systems and develop crop and livestock varieties and breeds that are more resistant to climate change’s many detrimental impacts, such as drought, disease, pests, and weeds. But even though every dollar spent on CGIAR research produces about 10 US dollars in benefits for low-income countries, current levels of investment in CGIAR agricultural research centers aren’t even half of what they need to be.

Another promising avenue for adaptation efforts is taking full advantage of digital technologies. CGIAR and many others are creating tools to help farmers adapt to unpredictable weather; they include drones and sensors that can assess water levels and phone apps that can more easily identify and track pests and diseases.

Through improved early warning systems, these digital tools can help farmers in even very remote areas prepare for climate-related threats. They can also connect them with experts who can advise them on conserving water, choosing stress-tolerant crop varieties, or getting animals immunized against vector-borne diseases.

The Gates Foundation’s commitment to CGIAR now totals more than $1 billion. The foundation called for the global community gathered in Glasgow to provide the additional investments CGIAR needs to support sustainable, resilient growth in the agriculture-dependent regions of the world.

The foundation is also addressing the adaptation needs of smallholder farmers by funding early warning systems for tracking the climate-accelerated spread of crop and livestock diseases and digital services that connect farmers with a wide range of supports more efficiently. The foundation has spent over $5 billion since 2009 in total commitments to agricultural development to support the needs of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.