Search site

After COVID-19: Where next for Climate Resilient Agricultural Development in the Global South?

Nafees Meah and Sheetal Sharma

Global food production is required to increase  between 50–70% by 2050 driven by population growth,, income growth, and change in diets.  However, global warming is already having a profound effect on food production around the world and in the global south in particular. With warmer temperatures have come increased frequency of droughts and floods, crop production losses, and reduced availability of freshwater. Under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), countries around the world have committed to a set of goals to end poverty, end hunger, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all by 2030. SDG13 on climate action calls for strengthened resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters. Agriculture, forestry and land use change accounts for nearly a quarter of the total greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Paris Agreement on climate change, many countries in the global south have included mitigation and/or adaptation actions in agriculture in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the global objective of keeping the rise in global temperature to well under 2 °C.

Smallholder farmers provide around 75% of the food supply in many developing countries.  The success of efforts to develop rural economies, ensure food and nutrition security, and eradicate rural poverty depend on building climate change resilience in agricultural systems managed by smallholders and the widespread adoption of innovations in farming practices – that is to say, to the delivery of the SDGs in the global south. However, although there are “islands” of climate-resilient agriculture practiced in the global south, what has been lacking to date has been change at scale.   This is despite tens of billions of dollars spent by development agencies over recent decades. To understand why this is the case, it is important to appreciate that building resilience to climate change  through technological interventions at the farm level, though necessary, is insufficient in itself for sustainability. For sustainability to take root in the economic, environmental and social spheres, we need to broaden the perspective to  food systems as a whole. There needs to be collective action-reflection in the lead-up to the UN food systems summit, which takes place later this year, to ensure that the SDGs are achieved by 2030.

 We argue that it is the conjunction of the agricultural innovation system and the food system that needs to be understood to see the options that are available to smallholder farmers. There is no “one-size-fits-all” technological solution. Instead, there are radically different and competing perspectives on the right path to take - and for which scientific evidence by research organizations such as CGIAR can help  national governments to assess the most sustainable pathway for their communities.  We argue that the COVID-19 pandemic may present an opportunity to build back better if we move away from the standard model of structural transformation that has informed development practice over recent decades. Instead, if we focus on reinvigorating rural communities through a climate-resilient smallholder agriculture sector and move away from the urban bias, then there is the hope that the rural sector will be the engine of recovery in the global south.


Nafees Meah is IRRI’s Regional Representative for South Asia and Sheetal Sharma is a soil scientist based in the IRRI South Asia regional office. Their joint publication, Climate-resilient agricultural development in the Global South is included in The Palgrave Handbook of Climate Resilient Societies.