Climate adaptation: Lessons from family farming

A Thought Leader Series Piece

Hallie Eakin

By Hallie Eakin

Note: 2014 is the United Nations’ International Year of Family Farming. The goal of the observance is to call attention to the role of family farming in achieving sustainable development. Senior Sustainability Scientist Hallie Eakin is an expert in agrarian change, vulnerability, and adaptation. Her work was recently featured on Arizona PBS’s Horizon program.

The International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) focuses on the role of the family farm in meeting our most pressing sustainability challenges: food security, poverty alleviation, and environmental integrity. That family farms are now seen as significant in solving these challenges, rather than causing them, marks a revolution in international thinking.

Many people envision small-scale farms as unfortunate features of the developing world: impoverished, lacking basic services, and suffering from economic insecurity and, ironically, hunger. Associating poverty and hunger with smallholder communities is not unfounded, but does family farming cause poverty or food insecurity? My work in Latin America, and that of many other scientists elsewhere, clearly answers, “No.”


Our collective evidence demonstrates that small-scale farms can play significant roles in feeding the world. They can both support and enhance biodiversity and also promote regional economic growth and technological and entrepreneurial innovation.

For most smallholders, agriculture is more than a living; it is what makes living meaningful. The family farmers that I have studied in Mexico, Central America, and even here in central Arizona are among the more resourceful on the planet: their livelihoods are founded on family labor, social ties, risk sharing, technological innovation and, perhaps most important, vocation – a real commitment and love for the difficult work entailed.

Maize and Multifunctionality

Besides IYFF, 2014 is also the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Since NAFTA’s signing, I have collaborated with researchers in Mexico to document the changes in the rural sector – particularly to the production of maize, the basic staple and iconic ingredient of Mexican cuisine. NAFTA was widely expected to transform Mexico’s agriculture by moving small-scale producers off the farm into more lucrative economic activities and by concentrating production in more efficient, irrigated, and large-scale farms. Public policy certainly supported this shift: resources were diverted to large farms to support production for export and investment in smallholders declined rapidly.

Nevertheless, the small-scale campesino farmer has persisted, despite increasing drought and flood events, lack of economic incentives, and increasing urban opportunities. Today there are still approximately 2.8 million maize farmers in Mexico, the majority producing on small land parcels under almost every ecological condition possible. Land area in maize has declined, but the primary change has been economic: without a supportive policy environment smallholders are not selling in formal markets.

The situation in Mexico suggests first that maize has significance beyond its value as an economic commodity. It remains the most important source of sustenance for Mexicans. While small-scale farmers may not be selling it in formal markets, they are actively trading and sharing maize in their communities. In doing so, they are maintaining agro-biodiversity, supporting community food security, and building strong social ties that are fundamental for sustainable development.

Second, rather than symbolizing poverty, maize provides insurance against the uncertainty of urban employment. Economic conditions have significantly improved across Mexico, and rural households now have access to opportunities off-farm. Formal employment, however, continues to be unstable or inaccessible in many areas. Maize – despite pests and climatic losses – provides a basis for livelihood security.

Third, maize remains the key ingredient for the traditional cuisine still highly valued by the rising Mexican middle class. Some households continue to grow maize even when they adopt urban lifestyles. Some peri-urban households are now establishing small-scale businesses, selling homemade tortillas, pozole, atole, and other traditional dishes to urban consumers who no longer have land to farm.

Finally, maize farming still occupies over half the agricultural land in Mexico, and the associated resources – soil, water, biodiversity – are managed by small-scale family farmers. These farmers are essential to solving the environmental challenges of the coming decades.

Learning from Smallholders about Risk

Climate change is one of the biggest threats to food production in the coming decades. Family farming is an incredibly risky activity, and small-scale producers are the most vulnerable. Imagine betting your yearly income and food security on the vagaries of weather, soils, pests, and markets! These conditions, however, have enabled farmers around the world to develop innovative and robust ways of managing risk: they diversify their crops, they find alternative sources of income, they collaborate with neighbors to share technology, knowledge, and seeds, and they join cooperatives to develop collective means of marketing their products.

As we face a warming world with limited understanding about how crop pests will behave, how farming will be affected, and how markets will respond, we need to take a second look at the strategies and knowledge of family farmers. Making agriculture more robust during climate change requires learning to live with risk and surprise; smallholder farming can teach us a great deal.

Small-scale producers will need support in return: they cannot meet the world’s food needs alone. Truly collaborative research among scientists and smallholders, combined with innovative policies that recognize the potential of family farming for sustainable development is necessary. As consumers, we need to support these efforts and in doing so, celebrate the multiple values and meanings associated with farming and food.

May 2014 be a year in which smallholders thrive, to all of our benefit!

About the author: Hallie Eakin is an associate professor in the School of Sustainability, where she teaches courses on sustainable worlds. Her recent research investigated economic globalization, agricultural change, and rural vulnerability to climate in the context of comparative international projects involving case studies in Mexico, Argentina, Guatemala, and Honduras. She is currently exploring coffee farmers' adaptive strategies in Mexico and Central America. Dr. Eakin has consulted with the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency on projects in agricultural development, the use of seasonal forecasting in drought risk mitigation, and adaptation to anticipated climate-change impacts on urban water availability.