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Climate change, migration and food security

In a conversation about climate migration and food security, Associate Professor Sarah Bermeo and PhD students Marcelo Silva Oliveira Gonclaves and Ana Andino highlighted the role of smallholder farmers and the need for inclusive policymaking.

For smallholder farmers, who produce roughly a third of the global food supply, climate change is impacting their livelihoods, making it difficult to sustain their agricultural operations and leading many to leave their homes.

A panel discussion, hosted by the Program on Climate-Related Migration, South-North Scholars and the Duke Center for International Development, explored the relationship between climate change, migration and food security.

Sarah Bermeo, associate professor and co-director of the Program on Climate-Related Migration; Marcelo Silva Oliveira Gonclaves, a PhD student who has served in various branches of the Brazilian government; and Ana Andino, a PhD student with experience working at the Inter-American Development Bank and the Central Bank of Honduras, offered their insights in a conversation moderated by Umang Dhingra ’26, a psychology and economics double major.


Defining climate migrant

Bermeo: “Even though we hear that term ‘climate refugee,’ there's no internationally recognized refugee status associated with climate change. ‘Climate migrant’ is a more appropriate term except there's no actual accepted definition of what it means to be a climate migrant. For most people who leave their homes, climate change is not the only reason. There's usually multiple drivers.”

Climate change and the smallholder farmer

Bermeo: “There are over 500 million farmers worldwide who operate as smallholder farmers. The U.N. estimates they produce about 35% of the global food supply. A lot of these people are on the front lines of climate change. A lot of these small holder farmers are in low- or middle-income countries that have not actually contributed much to climate change. Many of them are in indigenous communities.”

Gonclaves: “Brazil is this powerhouse producing a lot of the commodities that’s part of the food supply chain in the world but…the expansion of agricultural businesses in Brazil is associated with a non-sustainable way….[access to/use of large amounts of] water, deforestation, and displacement of small holder farmers.”

Andino: “In the case of Honduras, we are a very highly vulnerable country for climate change. Since 1998 we have had at least 65 extreme or moderate weather shocks. Honduras’ economy highly relies on agriculture and…70% of the agriculture community are small-scale farmers.”

The need for inclusive policies and strategies

Gonclaves: “We need to think really carefully about the process of the expansion of agro business and how these agriculture policies develop because there’s always some justification based on food security, but depending on how you look at food security and the dimensions involved, it can actually make things worse, especially for smallholders. Those smallholders are going to have to move because there’s no space for them in big farms that use a lot of technology, so where do they go with no skills or training to join the formal market?”

Andino: “It's building more inclusive policies rather than just thinking, ‘Oh, this policy will help them have higher yields or higher quality of land.’”

Bermeo: “We need to be working with local communities to come up with solutions. When you go out and you talk to the local population, they can come up with good strategies on their own that you would never have thought of before. To leave those voices out…it's wrong on many levels.”

About the panelists

Marcelo Silva Oliveira Gonclaves is a Race & Professions Fellow pursuing his PhD at Duke Sanford. He received a master’s degree in political science from the University of Brasilia and a master’s degree in international affairs from the University of California, San Diego. Gonclaves has served in the Brazilian government, including positions in the Ministry of Labor and Employment, the Office of the President, the National Council for Food Security and the Ministry of Human Rights. He currently works in the Ministry of Citizenship.

Ana Andino is a PhD student at Duke Sanford. She graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science with a master’s degree in economic development. Her professional experience includes roles with the Inter-American Development Bank and the Central Bank of Honduras.

Sarah Bermeo is an associate professor of public policy and political science at Duke Sanford and co-director of the Program on Climate-Related Migration. Her research lies at the intersection of international relations and development, with a focus on foreign aid, migration, climate change and the intersection of these areas, particularly with regard to climate change adaptation and the development of institutions for global public goods.