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FEATURE: Climate smart agriculture: Unlocking the puzzle

Jules Siedenburg takes a critical look at ‘climate smart agriculture’ approaches, highlighting both the prospects and challenges in achieving the ‘triple wins’ for  climate adaptation, mitigation and development. He introduces the guide to online knowledge resources on climate smart agriculture, which he has created with CDKN support. 

Agriculture is the lead sector in many developing countries, often employing a majority of the population. It also has profound linkages to other key sectors such as water, forestry, energy, health and the environment. Despite its importance, farming is already in trouble in many countries and faces looming threats. Notably, small-scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia make up a majority of the 1 billion food insecure people in the world. These communities also tend to be highly vulnerable to climate change and in many places its impacts have become palpable in recent years, including increasingly variable rainfall and more frequent and dramatic droughts, flooding and cyclones. Consequences for farming communities can include reduced crop and livestock productivity, and sometimes crop failures and livestock mortality. Such impacts are predicted to increase over time due to climate change.

How agricultural production copes with climate change and how farming practices respond to it are therefore critical questions. ‘Climate smart agriculture’ offers potential answers.

Introductory guide to climate smart agriculture

I have developed a guide on climate smart agriculture examining the concept further and providing links to further useful research. What I note is that climate smart agriculture has emerged as a family of agricultural technologies that aim to deliver on both core farming objectives and climate change objectives. Specifically, these technologies promise synergistic ‘triple win’ outcomes, as demonstrated in myriad case studies of local successes, some of which is highlighted in the identified key readings. This ‘triple win’ includes:

  1. sustainably increasing agricultural productivity or incomes
  2. building resilience to climate change impacts (i.e. climate adaptation), and
  3. combating climate change (i.e. climate change mitigation).

Drilling down to its essence, in many areas climate smart agriculture technologies can offer an opportunity to double overall farm production despite climate change. Many of these results have been achieved by projects that fostered farmer adoption of practices which rehabilitated degraded lands while harnessing synergies between crops, livestock and farm trees.

Winners and losers

Climate smart agriculture seems to hold amazing potential, yet this has not been realised to date, beyond numerous yet typically isolated case studies. Simply put, climate smart agriculture technologies have generally failed to disseminate spontaneously, raising questions as to why. This state of affairs constitutes a conundrum, especially since these technologies tend to emphasise readily accessible inputs, notably innovative ways of managing local natural resources. The literature cites numerous barriers to farmer adoption of these technologies, yet still this state of affairs remains unsatisfactory and troubling.

Despite offering win-win outcomes that would seem to make everyone a winner, things are rarely this simple. On the one hand, changes most always involve winners and losers, so being lucid about this and managing it intelligently is one major challenge. Another involves addressing the criticisms of climate smart agriculture sceptics, whose concerns merit careful consideration. Such caveats notwithstanding, climate smart agriculture offers prospects of a brighter future for communities and countries in need of hope, making this an exciting and rewarding field, one richly deserving ongoing efforts by researchers, practitioners and farmers to unlock its full potential.

The Sustainable Development Goals and COP21

As we move towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is worth considering how climate smart agriculture links to this global agenda and why it matters. The broad aim of the SDGs is to work within our environment limits and still achieve economic and social development across all countries, both rich and poor. Climate smart agriculture is significant across multiple goals: from SDG 2, which strives to end hunger and promote sustainable agriculture, to SDG 15 which aims to protect and restore sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems. The road ahead for climate smart agriculture is exciting, with intelligent discussions to be had about the challenges that it also presents.

This post was originally published on Eldis. You can find it here.

Image credit: Howard Davies/Oxfam

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