Agriculture is a vital sector for food security, livelihoods, and economic development. However, it is also highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as droughts, floods, pests, and diseases. According to the World Bank, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals globally, and most of this water is used for irrigation. As competition for water resources increases, agriculture will need to adapt and become more efficient and resilient.

How to make agriculture less rain-fed

One way to achieve this is to re-imagine modern agriculture as less rain-fed and more climate-smart. This means adopting practices and technologies that can reduce water use, enhance soil health, increase crop yields, and sequestrate carbon. Some examples of these practices may include:

  • Reducing or eliminating tillage can help conserve soil moisture, improve soil structure, and store more carbon in the soil.
  • Expanding crop rotations: Crop rotation is the practice of growing different crops in a sequence on the same piece of land. This can help diversify income sources, reduce pest and disease pressure, improve soil fertility, and reduce water demand. For example, growing legumes such as beans or peas can fix nitrogen in the soil and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers.
  • Planting cover crops: Cover crops are plants that are grown between main crops or during fallow periods to protect and enrich the soil. Cover crops can help reduce soil erosion, suppress weeds, retain soil moisture, and add organic matter and nutrients to the soil. Some cover crops can also provide fodder for livestock or food for human consumption.
  • Reintegrating livestock into crop production systems: Livestock can play an important role in enhancing the productivity and sustainability of crop production systems. Livestock can provide manure for fertilizing crops, graze on crop residues or cover crops, and contribute to income diversification. Integrating livestock with crops can also create synergies in terms of water use efficiency and carbon sequestration.
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These practices have proven to reduce agriculture’s own footprint as well as capture the excess carbon generated by other industries (World Economic Forum, 2019). However, they are not widely adopted by farmers due to various barriers such as lack of knowledge, skills, incentives, markets, infrastructure, policies, and institutions. Therefore, there is a need for more research, extension, investment, and innovation to support the adoption of these practices and make them more accessible and profitable for farmers.

One example of a successful initiative that promotes climate-smart agriculture is the French Citizens’ Convention on Climate (CCC), which involved 150 randomly selected citizens in a six-month process of deliberation and recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The CCC proposed several measures to support farmers in adopting more sustainable practices such as reducing tillage, expanding crop rotations, planting cover crops, reintegrating livestock into crop production systems, and increasing organic farming (Fournis & Le Floch, 2021).

Another example is the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which conducts research on the role of rainfed agriculture in the future of global food production. IFPRI suggests that improving water management in rainfed areas can increase cereal yields by 50 percent or more (Rosegrant et al., 2002). This can be achieved by using water harvesting techniques such as micro-catchments or small reservoirs that collect runoff water from rainfall or irrigation. These techniques can also help recharge groundwater aquifers and provide water for domestic or livestock use.

Re-imagining modern agriculture as less rain-fed and more climate-smart is not only a necessity but also an opportunity. It can help address the challenges of food security, poverty reduction, environmental sustainability, and climate change adaptation and mitigation. It can also create new markets and value chains for farmers and consumers. To realize this vision, we need more collaboration and innovation among farmers, researchers, policymakers, private sector actors, civil society organizations, and consumers.

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