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The potential of sustainable land-use systems to promote adaptation to climate change

Project profile

The project is concerned with the potential of sustainable agricultural land-use systems to foster adaptation to climate change. With its specific focus on adaptation, the project complements and continues the preceding project on "Carbon Credits for sustainable Landuse Systems (CaLas)", which focussed on strategies to mitigate climate change. The current project uses and expands the information and database that was already established in the CaLas project. The overarching goal is to identify the agricultural practices and cultivation systems that are economically and ecologically viable and have a high chance to be adopted in smallholder farming contexts.

In order to achieve this, the project takes a trans-disciplinary approach. The methodology combines specific findings based on the natural sciences at field and activity level with social sciences and economics at farm and regional level.

In addition, the project includes a large number of renowned institutions participating, such as the African Development Bank, Biovision, Bread for all, the Environmental Defense Fund, Helvetas, Hivos, IFOAM, RTOACC, Swissaid and the Gold Standard Foundation. These institutions foster the implementation of sustainable land-use systems that help safeguard the productivity and profitability of smallholder communities in developing-country regions. This network provides ongoing support for the project and reviews its progress and outcomes. The institutions also ensures that the agricultural practices developed by the project are disseminated and utilised beyond the project’s term, and are applied beyond the project’s own target region.


The project is running from 2013 to 2017 and is separated into two consecutive phases.

Phase I: Providing scientific background (2013 – 2016)

The first phase of the project compiles and synthesises the currently fragmented knowledge base of promising agriculture practices that help to improve climate change adaptation of smallholder farmers in the dry regions of Africa. Drawing upon this knowledge base, existing indicators are reviewed with regard to their predictive power in relation to climate change adaptation in agriculture, and new indicators are developed for this field of application. Furthermore, a comprehensive literature analysis and meta-analysis were done in order to identify promising agriculture practices.

Indicator development

Within the first phase of the project, existing climate change adaptation indicators were analysed and new ones developed. The main goal was to assess indicators that are easy to measure and at the same time allow monitoring adaptation successes to climate change in agricultural practices. Therefore, the peer-reviewed literature base on the subject was reviewed and synthesized. It turns out that water and nutrient use efficiency can provide valuable indicators to measure and monitor successes of climate change adaptation in the global dry regions. Thus, these indicators were chosen in order to compare different improved agricultural practices and production systems in the following four meta-analysis.

Meta-analysis I: Nutrient and water use efficiency of agricultural practices in West Africa

In this work, the agricultural practices with the highest nutrient- and water-use efficiency across West Africa are determined and, therefore, considered as potential adaptation measures to climate change. Several promising practices such as the use of organic fertilizers, the combination of organic and inorganic fertilizers, mixed crops with legumes, conservational tillage, mulching and water harvesting techniques were identified. These practices were compared to the common agricultural practices regarding their water and nutrient use efficiency by making use of a pairwise comparison.

Meta-analysis II: Biofertilizer to improve water and nutrient use efficiency in farming systems

The second meta-analysis investigates the potential of biofertilizer to improve water and nutrient use efficiency in crop production. Microbial inoculants or biofertilizer are a promising method for future agriculture. Biofertilizer exist in various forms such as rhizobia, azospirilla, or mycorrhiza. Particularly in dry regions, the use of these microorganisms may provide a potential solution to improve water and nutrient use efficiency. Therefore, global studies about biofertiliser treatments were reviewed and a pairwise comparison for their water and nutrient use efficiency was conducted. As most of the experiments in the literature were conducted in the dry regions of India, this meta-analysis focusses on this region.

Meta-analysis III: Integrating agroforestry to improve water and nutrient use efficiency in farming systems in West Africa

Agroforestry, the integration of hedges and trees into agricultural fields, may be a potential solution to reduce negative climate change impacts for smallholder farmers. This measure reduces the erosion risk and the need for fertilizer applications. Therefore, this meta-analysis compares the water and nutrient-use efficiency of commonly practiced monocultures with agroforestry systems. In order to do so, the existing literature on agroforestry trials in Africa is reviewed. Different agroforestry practices such as intercropping with legumes, mulching, application of animal manure and conservation tillage are compared pairwise with the most common agriculture practices.

Meta-analysis IV: The impact of organic farming systems on water and nutrient use efficiency

In this work, it is analysed if and to what extent organic farming improves nitrogen use efficiency compared to conventional farming systems. Therefore, existing literature on organic cultivation systems is evaluated and pairwise compared with the conventional farmer practice. The studies that are integrated to date comprise a portfolio of 15 different countries and different organic farming practices, such as compost and farmyard manure applications.

Phase II: Implementation of suitable measures (2016 – 2017)

Phase II applies and validates the findings of Phase I in a case study conducted in a West African region in order to ensure that the recommended adaptation measures are expedient, practicable and effective for smallholder farmers in Mali and West Africa. In order to achieve this, the project uses the existing farmers’ network established by FiBL and Helvetas in Mali from the Syprobio project, which includes the collaboration with the "Institut d’Economie Rurale (IER)", the national institute for research and development and communication/dissemination of agriculture in Mali. Two smallholder farmer regions are considered: Kléla and Boura.

Kléla is a small town and rural commune in the Sikasso Circle in the Sikasso Region of southern Mali. The commune covers an area of 7,860 hectares.  Around 31,300 inhabitants live in the town and 13 villages. Maize, sorghum, peanuts and sesame are produced for self-consumption and local markets. The project collaborates with a group of local farmers to gather information on climate-relevant farming techniques.

Boura is a town and rural commune in the Yorosso Circle, in the Sikasso Region of southern Mali. It encompasses the town and 15 villages with a population of 123,000. The main crops produced in Boura are organic and conventional cotton for the international market. Maize, sorghum, peanuts and sesame are produced for self-consumption and local markets, similarly to Kléla. The project team collaborates with the cooperative organic cotton grower association MIBIOM, which encompasses more than 8,000 members. Some of these partner farms are also consulted on climate-relevant farming techniques.

Both regions are situated in a sub-humid/semi-arid climate, where changes in precipitation patterns have become  noticeable in the recent years. Therefore, the local farmers are confronted with shorter rainy periods and decreasing crop yields. Thus, the project uses existing data of the status quo and compares it with established practices that improve nutrient management, such as composting for soil improvement, integration of livestock, agroforestry with adapted tree species, water harvesting, conservation tillage with zaid planting hole techniques and mulching. Additionally, the project conducted a farmer survey (over 120 farmers) to find out if the improved farming practices are expedient and practicable for smallholder farmers in the region, which measures are already used by the farmers and how these measures can be integrated into their social, environmental, operational and cultural structures. The survey is currently being evaluated.

Workshop at the end of the project

Last but not least, a workshop will be conducted at the end of the second project phase, to which local farmer representatives as well as scientists and politicians will be invited. The results of the project will be collaboratively discussed and the transfer and exchange of knowledge will be enabled. By integrating the local farmer representatives, the potential measures for climate change adaptation can be passed on to local farmers, and the involved politicians from environmental and agricultural ministries influence the local, regional or national political structures. Additionally, the scientific publications of the projects help to spread the findings globally and, thus, may help to promote potential climate change adaptation measures for other dry regions in the world.

Further information

Project duration

December 2013 to May 2017


Financed by Mercator Foundation Switzerland



Peer-reviewed papers and book-chapters

  • Nicolay, G., 2019, Understanding and Changing Farming, Food & Fiber Systems. The Organic Cotton Case in Mali and West Africa, Open Agriculture 4: 86–97
  • Schütz, L., Gattinger, A., Meier, M., Muller, A., Boller, T., Mäder, P., Mathimaran, N., 2018, Improving Crop Yield and Nutrient Use Efficiency via Biofertilization—A Global Meta-analysis, Frontiers in Plant Sciences 8, doi: 10.3389/fpls.2017.02204
  • Bautze, L., Nicolay, G.L., Meier, M., Gattinger, A., Muller, A., 2018, Climate change adaptation through science-farmer-policy dialogue: Experiences from the project: "The potential of sustainable land-use systems to promote adaptation to climate change" in Mali. In: Fihlo, W.L. (ed), Handbook of Climate Change Resilience. Section Osunsina, I., Follador, M., Jacobs, B., Feldman, I., Keenan, J.M., Hurlbert, M.A., Weissenberger, S. (ed): Climate resilience measures integrated with policies and governance at city, regional and national level. Springer Nature, Heidelberg
  • Muller, A., Meier, M., Steffens, M., Gattinger, A., Schader, C., 2018, Measuring and improving the environmental impact of organic farming, in: Köpke, U., Improving organic crop cultivation. Cambridge, UK: Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing Limited

Other publications

  • Muller, A., Steffens, M., Krause, H.-M., Bautze, L., Meier, M., Stöckli, S., 2017, What can organic farming contribute? - The role of organic farming for climate change mitigation and adaptation, Rural21 51(4): 20-22
  • Muller, A., Gattinger, A., Meier, M., 2015, Adaptation to climate change  - there is much more to it, Rural21 June 2015
  • Nicolay, G., Muller, A., Meier, M., 2017, Des stratégies d’adaptation au changement climatique pour agriculteurs – les conclusions de l’étude Mercator Mali 2016, Fact Sheet from the Project on Climate Change Adaptation, input to the institutional process in Mali, funded by the Mercator Foundation Switzerland


  • Muller, A., 2018, Adaptation to climate change in agriculture, adaptive capacity and nutrient use efficiency, group seminary at ISPA, INRA; 17.12.2018, Bordeaux
  • Muller, A., 2018, "Adaptation to climate change in development cooperation – challenges, institutional aspects and ways forward" FiBL-Mercator Online-Seminar on Climate Change Adaptation, 18.11.2018
  • Bautze, A., 2017, The Potential of Alley Cropping as a Multi-Dimensional Strategy for Climate Change Adaptation in Africa, Tropentag, 21.9.2017, Bonn
  • Muller, A., 2017, Experiences from the MERCATOR Adaptation Project, Workshop on "Practical research for climate protection in organic agriculture", Biofach, Nürnberg 15.2.2017
  • Muller, A., 2017, Organic Agriculture and Climate Change, Workshop on “How can organic farming improve its environmental performance and its contribution to climate change mitigation?”, IFOAM-EU Group, Biofach, Nürnberg 15.2.2017
  • Muller, A., 2017, Agroecology - a solution for carbon sequestration and adaptation to climate change? Learning and exchange day on agroecology and climate resilience of the Working Group on Right to Food, Bread for all, 11.1.2017
  • Muller, A., 2015, Comparing farming systems with productivity analysis: the role of regional aspects, biophysical constraints, and economic assumptions, Agroeconet Colloquium, ETH Zurich, 3.12.2015

Other materials (lecture notes, etc.)

  • Gattinger, A. 2017 and 2018, lecture notes on "Climate relevance and resource efficiency of sustainable farming systems", Spring/Summer 2017 and 2018 at Justus-Liebig University Giessen, Master Module MP 155.
  • Muller, A., 2018, lecture notes on "Klimawandel und das Ernährungssystem", in the bachelor course on "Welternährungssysteme", Spring 2018, Zürcher Hochschule für angewandte Wissenschaften ZHAW