Pathways to smallholder adaptation to climate change

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

Smallholder farmers across the globe are vulnerable to environmental, climatic, and weather-related stress. Future changes in climatic conditions are expected to both exacerbate existing challenges and create new ones for smallholders.  Adaptation strategies offer opportunities to adjust agriculture and agricultural livelihoods to the impacts of a changing climate, but professor Zhao Ma’s (Forestry and Natural Resources) work shows that the success of a particular adaptation will depend on the social, political, economic, and institutional contexts that underpin them. 

With her colleague Morey Burnham (Idaho State University), Ma conducted a study of smallholders in the Loess Plateau Region of China to analyze two adaptation strategies, planting maize and adopting drip irrigation.  They found that planting maize persisted as an adaptation strategy because it allowed for the most amount of current and future risks to be managed. By planting maize and taking advantage of state-led agricultural advances (e.g., drought-tolerant seeds and plastic mulching) and economic incentives (fertilizer subsidies and crop insurance), farmers were able to reduce their vulnerability to environmental and climatic stresses, and also had more time to earn money as wage workers—growing maize requires less labor than other choices such as vegetables and watermelons. Drip irrigation, on the other hand, failed because it forced smallholder households to spend more time on irrigation and farming than they were willing to. This inhibited their ability to perform off-farm wage work as a strategy to reduce current and future risks associated with dependence on agriculture production.

Burnham and Ma’s work highlight the complexities shaping adaptation decision making and the need to consider historical and ongoing multi-scale social-ecological change, and the need to find strategies that manage multiple risks.

Burnham, M. and Z. Ma (2018). Multi-scalar pathways to smallholder adaptation. World Development, 108, 249-262.

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