What role can climate-smart agriculture play?

Climate-smart agriculture is an approach that wants to transform and reorient existing agricultural systems to support food security and reverse environmental degradation under the new challenges faced by climate change. By simultaneously seeking to address the twin challenges of declining smallholder agricultural yields and the need to reduce anthropogenic global carbon dioxide output into the atmosphere, the approach advocates the promotion of adaptation measures that build resilience to climate change impacts (Campbell et al, 2014; Steenwerth et al, 2012). By engaging small-scale farmers in the carbon market, the premise is that the financial incentives created by this market could encourage a widespread transition to climate smart agriculture. Proponents of this model, including institutions such as the World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations as well as many governments, claim that the benefits for agricultural communities who engage with this approach include lowering production costs, higher crop productivity, greater climate resilience and new income sources. Furthermore, it is estimated that the potential of small-scale farmers to deliver mitigation services could remove 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the next 50 years – about one-third of the world’s carbon-reduction challenge over this period.

Tea plantation in the Cameroon highlands
Tea plantation in the Cameroon highlands. Photo: Author

Given the challenges created by poverty, environmental degradation and climate change, a key area in terms of technological innovation in the agricultural sector is that of sustainable land management practices, which involve the management of natural resources such as soils, water, plants and animals to meet human needs while simultaneously ensuring the long-term productive potential of these resources and maintaining their environmental functions. Research has clearly demonstrated that via active and integrated management of natural resources, sustainable land management practices can rehabilitate degraded lands, including their vegetation and soils and their hydrology. For example, they can increase water availability to plants by controlling runoff and erosion, increasing rainfall infiltration, reducing evaporation and increasing water-holding capacity. While such practices have been successful in many diverse local contexts, there has not yet been a large-scale adoption of these processes to-date. It is clear that a better understanding of the barriers to adopting such practices is needed as well as identifying the costs and benefits faced by farmers (Siedenburg, 2012).

Critics of the climate-smart agriculture approach are concerned that the term will be loosely regulated, with no specific climate, environmental or social criteria identified and offer a platform for large multinationals and agribusiness interests, as well as governments, to hide their unsustainable practices beneath the banner of a green approach whilst also failing to address the systemic change that is required to adapt food systems to changing weather patterns (Anderson, 2014). The result, they argue, could well be an increase in climate change and vulnerability of farmers and food systems.

Authored by Dr. Julian Bloomer, TCD Geography

Anderson, T. (2014) Clever name, losing game? How climate smart agriculture is sowing confusion in the food movement, Website: http://www.actionaid.org/sites/files/actionaid/csag_clevernamelosinggame_0.pdf Accessed on: 10/02/2015
Siedenburg, J., Martin, A. & McGuire, S. (2012) The power of “farmer-friendly” financial incentives to deliver climate smart agriculture: a critical data gap, Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences, 9(4), 201-217

Steenwerth, K.L. et al (2014) Climate-smart agriculture global research agenda: scientific basis for action, Agriculture and Food Security, 3(11), 1-39

Campbell, B.M. et al (2014) Sustainable intensification: what is its role in climate smart agriculture?, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 8, 39-43


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