Effective farmers confronting climate change

August 1, 2019

Dr Bruce Campbell is Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), and a staff member of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). He is based at the Universities of Copenhagen and Wageningen. Dr Campbell will be speaking at our Annual Conference this year, presenting the overview for the session on Weather and Halting the Perfect Storm: Food System Solutions. In this opinion piece, Bruce discusses the important role of farmer organisations, including Australia’s Farmers for Climate Action.

By Ana María Loboguerrero and Bruce Campbell (CCAFS)

Recent research from diverse contexts points to the importance of “local” in driving climate adaptation. Farmer organizations and their networks are potentially crucial for three reasons: (a) with effective local networking they can share, learn and innovate; (b) with effective organization they can act as aggregators, in order to better obtain finance, access markets and benefit from higher prices; and (c) with an effective voice, they can influence policy makers. Effective is the key!

Networking to stimulate sharing, learning and innovation

What do the following three examples have in common? (1) Farmers for Climate Action, a movement of farmers, agricultural leaders and rural Australians working to ensure that farmers are part of the solution to climate change; (2) farmer-led greening in Tigray, previously an epicenter of famine and now largely food self-sufficient and greener than ever; and (3) Wefarm, a farmer-to-farmer digital network with more than a million users across Kenya and Uganda. The answer is simple: all of them represent successful cases of effective local networking that has been translated into concrete benefits for farmers, through a diversity of mechanisms.  

However, farmers’ organizations are not a simple recipe for success. According to Aleksandra Dolinska and Patrick d’Aquino in their recent paper examining a dairy cooperative, unequal power dynamics may limit effectiveness. Loan Thi Phan and colleagues also noted that the gender imbalances in organizations can negatively impact women.

Union becomes power

The theory is easy to understand: in general, small-scale farmers in developing countries face market imperfections that lead to high transaction costs of accessing input and output markets, at the same time that they face poor access to credit and low bargaining power. Numerous studies suggest that these constraints could be overcome if small-scale farmers were organized into collective action groups. Nevertheless, empirical studies find varied levels of success and benefits of agricultural cooperatives. The latter does not imply that the theory is wrong, however, and under some circumstances collective action groups can become powerful. In particular, administrative and skill competence of the managers of these groups and the level of members’ participation can determine the success of cooperatives (Mojo et al., 2017). At the same time, sub-Saharan Africa has demonstrated that democratic governance, homogeneous groups of optimal size, and transparent and market-led farmer organizations can enhance farmers’ access to markets (Shiferaw et al. 2011).

What can a united, strong voice accomplish? 

According to Julio Berdegué and colleagues, the sectoral and organizational diversity of territorial economic structures and the intensity of interactions among them is one of the five factors that facilitated development among 10,000 territories in 11 countries in Latin America. The study suggests that positive developments depend on “transformative social coalitions” characterized by a convergence in the vision and actions of diverse social actors that are committed to sustained action over a long period of time. As Pierre-Marie Bosc and colleagues conclude, the level of influence on policy that local organizations can bring to bear is often linked to their ability to forge alliances within the rural world or to partner with other actors in civil society or with the private sector.

So now what?

Rural societies have an essential, yet often ignored role in the global discourse on finding climate change adaptation solutions, and an essential role in fostering action. However, the rural voice is seldom heard. Farmers organizations have a key role to play. What needs to happen? Farmer organizations themselves need to reflect on, and improve, their effectiveness, as problems in leadership and gender inequality will undermine their roles. Governments can help by investing in capacity building for farmers’ organizations, and providing the enabling regulatory and legal frameworks for better governance. Public and private sector actors can invest in developing creative and innovative networking mechanisms such as digital platforms that can mobilize and connect farmers. To increase their voice and role in influencing policy, farmers’ organizations need to develop powerful networks with other stakeholders.


Ana Maria Loboguerrero is the Head of Global Policy Research for CCAFS. Bruce Campbell is Program Director of CCAFS. Originally published by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.