Climate change compounds challenges faced by small-holder farmers worldwide

Findings are part of Plan-REFUGE project on food systems planning

Farmer standing beside cauliflower patch in the Khorda district of Kerala, India. Credit: UB Food Lab.

Smallholder farmers in the the Global South, like this one in the Khorda district of Kerala, India, face greater threats to their livelihood due to climate change. Photo by UB Food Lab

Published September 24, 2019


The effects of climate change are compounding existing economic challenges faced by small-holder farmers around the world, threatening a critical link in sustainable food systems at the local and global scale.

The findings are documented by the Plan-REFUGE project led by the School of Architecture and Planning's Food Lab and UB's Community for Global Health Equity. Drawing from case studies in Accra, Ghana; the Indian states of Kerala and Odisha; and the Parish of Clarendon, Jamaica, the project investigates how small-holder farmers are adapting their daily living practices in the face of challenges including globalization and climate change. 

Learn more about Plan-REFUGE

Funded by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, Plan-REFUGE aims to cultivate learning exchange among local stakeholders and build capacity for food systems planning among policy makers from the local to global scale. The research team is directed by Samina Raja, professor of urban planning and director of UB's Food Lab, and Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah, assistant professor of urban planning and affiliated faculty of UB's Community for Global Health Equity

Food systems are defined as the place-based infrastructure that enables food to travel from source to plate and beyond. Communities’ food systems encompass a complex set of interlinked activities that enable the production, aggregation, processing, wholesale, and retail of food, and the acquisition, preparation as well as consumption of food. As such, challenges in the food system often link to broader economic, environmental and social challenges including globalization, climate change, infrastructure and inequities in access to housing, education and wealth.

According to the Plan-REFUGE team, climate-related impacts and responses varied widely across the three study countries, revealing a number of opportunities for adaptive responses and policy innovation in communities around the world:

  • Extreme weather events such as hurricanes, flooding and drought are particularly disruptive to food systems due to their impact on food production and transportation networks. The capacity and resilience of small-holder farms and government entities to recover from and repair damage is challenged by the increasing frequency of such events. Related consequences include increased input costs due to degraded soil and water, and pressure to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides to maintain production levels.  
  • The impact of extreme weather events and other climate change-related impacts are experienced across the food system and include food processing and retailers.  
  • Overall, water and land restrictions due to climate change and urbanization, in conjunction with the effects of globalization, threaten crop diversity, nutrition security, and environmental sustainability.
  • Government leadership and local stakeholders across the studied countries are rising to the challenge in a number of ways, including development of farmland protection ordinances, measures to support the development of organic farms and the promotion of sustainable lifestyle practices. 
  • Interviews and field visits with farmers and local stakeholders suggest that planning efforts and interagency cooperation may not be sufficient to reach the most vulnerable farmers, processors, and retailers given the variation of geographic, climatic, and socioeconomic conditions across each region.