Climate-Smart Agriculture Has to Add Up

This post summarizes a substantive reply from Bruce Campbell, director of the CGIAR program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security, to the preceding post by Jeffrey Bretz of IFAD.


The point that climate-smart agriculture builds on what we “already know how to do” is well taken. But it could come across as a potentially dangerous endorsement of the status quo. On the contrary, climate-smart agriculture must add to current knowledge and resources in various ways.

To start with, this concept explicitly adds climate-change adaptation and mitigation to the conventional goals of agricultural development, like increased production.

And that will invariably mean dealing with additional trade-offs. Rising temperatures in South Asia’s Indo-Gangetic Plains, for example, will require earlier planting of wheat; but the easiest way to do this is by burning the residues of the previous rice crop, thus increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Sometimes, it will be necessary to “subtract” practices that are not climate-smart – such as fertilizer subsidies that enhance food production but boost emissions.

To achieve climate-smart agriculture will also require many additional partners, for example, from the climate-science community, meteorological departments, and insurance sector.

Markets will have to change as well, involving alternative products that have less impact on the environment and more efficient exports with a smaller carbon footprint.

These shifts imply an expanded research agenda that addresses urgent needs, like better seasonal forecasting for climate-risk management, down-scaled climate projections for agricultural adaptation, and a new generation of climate-smart crop solutions. The recently launched Adaptation and Mitigation Knowledge Network brings together a lot of information about these issues and links it to interactive maps.

New policies are urgently needed as well that give due attention to agriculture, including its role as a driver of deforestation.

Above all, climate-smart agriculture is about envisioning a different, more uncertain world and knowing in advance how to respond. The response will vary from one location to another. In places that suffer from food deficits, emissions may have to increase, while in others, agriculture should de-intensify to reduce its environmental foot print.

But all these responses, taken together, must add up to a climate-smart agriculture that reduces hunger and poverty while dealing successfully with the climate challenge.

Climate-Smart Agriculture: Yes, We Can

This is an abbreviated version of a post by Jeffrey Bretz on the Social Reporting Blog of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). He describes an “intense and lively discussion” about climate-smart agriculture at the Second Global AgriKnowledge Share Fair, held late last month at IFAD headquarters in Rome.

There was no consensus on exactly what climate smart agriculture is or should be. But boundaries seem to be forming. Most agreed that perhaps 80 percent of the concept consists of what we already know how to do (integrated pest management, organic and conservation agriculture, etc.). However, there’s a tricky and evasive 20 percent that is new – linked to emerging challenges brought about by climate change.

There was a consensus that climate-smart agriculture is strongly influencing agricultural research and development, presenting an opportunity to move towards a more integrated, cross-sectoral approach. Yes, mindsets are changing, but what’s missing is a global vision for agriculture, including the role of smallholders, into which climate-smart practices would fit. We need this!

Speakers also agreed that more must be done to make the transition to climate-smart agriculture happen: better assessment of farmers’ vulnerability; new policies that reward climate-smart practices; ICT solutions that better connect smallholder farmers to seasonal climate predictions and trends; better education and extensions services; easier access to new technologies like drought-tolerant seeds; and mainstreaming of climate-smart agriculture into agricultural and rural development, which is where the bulk of the funding will remain, despite new climate funds.

Perhaps, the strongest point of consensus was that farmers are natural adapters. But for most of them, climate change is happening too fast and creating too much unpredictability. Successful adaptation often involves traditional practices. The oases of the Maghreb are a case in point: Water is used efficiently, and livestock are integrated into cropping systems. Let’s not waste time or money reinventing the wheel!

Opening the Door for Agriculture at COP16

The mutual dependence of climate security and food security was the clear message from Agriculture and Rural Development Day 2010, held on December 4 in parallel with the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) taking place at Cancún, Mexico.

These words are only now starting to resonate with climate change negotiators. Hopefully, actions will speak louder than words. Just from the event’s plenary session, it was clear that many countries are already actively seeking ways to achieve the “triple win” of stronger food security, more rapid growth in agricultural productivity and enhanced carbon capture, while also making farming more resilient in the face of climate change.

Mexico, for example, is doing its part by pursuing a series of concrete measures, such as the promotion of conservation agriculture, for mitigating and adapting to climate change. The country has set ambitious goals for progress on both fronts by 2012, including emissions reduction in agriculture of 7.83 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to Ignacio Rivera Rodríguez, Sub-Secretary for Rural Development in Mexico’s Secretariat for Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food.

Inger Andersen, CGIAR Fund Chair and Vice President of Sustainable Development, World Bank, cited further examples of decisive action, such as the spread of Evergreen Agriculture in Africa. These and further cases, presented by speakers from China and other countries, demonstrate impressively how climate-smart farming practices are already being put into practice.

A statement resulting from Agriculture and Rural Development 2010 called for many more initiatives of this kind, with emphasis on efforts to help the rural poor adapt to climate change impacts and on the use of climate finance to realize agriculture’s substantial potential for capturing carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Participants in the event also came to grips with the thorny issue of how agricultural intensification can be made compatible with the reduction of deforestation. Several speakers stressed that to promote rather than undermine this aim, efforts to produce more from less land must form part of a larger package of interventions aimed at encouraging better use of already deforested land, reduced waste of food and agricultural inputs, and clear definition of tenure rights for farming and forest communities.

The lively roundtable discussion on this issue, which continued in a Learning Event held at Forest Day 4, represented an important step toward a more integrated approach through which the agriculture and forestry sectors can jointly pursue their shared goal of finding triple-win solutions that matter for the poor and the planet.

In order for such an approach to thrive, however, it is essential that climate negotiators heed the call from Agriculture and Rural Development Day 2010 for various steps, including explicit recognition of the critical links between agriculture and forestry and the creation of an agricultural work program under the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) as a first step toward the inclusion of food security in any post-2012 agreement.

A Bold and Concerted Response to Climate Change

Amidst growing alarm that climate change could deal a catastrophic blow to farming in the developing world, the CGIAR officially launched today a major new initiative to cope with its impacts on agriculture and to avert dire consequences for global food security.

By 2020, the effort aims to reduce poverty by 10 percent in targeted regions, lower the number of rural people who are malnourished by 25 percent and help developing country farmers contribute to climate change mitigation by enhancing carbon storage and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equivalent to 1,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over a decade, compared with a “business-as-usual” scenario.

The program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, or CCAFS, brings together strategic research carried out by the CGIAR, the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) and their respective partners in an innovative collective effort to be coordinated by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

“I’m excited about our new collaboration with the CGIAR,” said Diana Liverman, a professor at the University of Arizona, speaking on behalf of the ESSP. “The work we’ve done together on the impacts of average temperature increases of 4 degrees Centigrade or more has already generated major media coverage and influenced climate negotiations.”

The launch event was held just after Agriculture and Rural Development Day 2010, which took place in parallel with the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP16) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

“This program represents a bold and concerted effort to confront the complex challenges that agriculture faces today,” said Inger Andersen, CGIAR Fund Chair and Vice President for Sustainable Development, World Bank. “It builds on 40 years of CGIAR research, including notable achievements in the development of hardier crop varieties, better ways to manage natural resources and powerful tools for analyzing the impacts of a changing climate.”

The launch of CCAFS marks the beginning of a long-term endeavor with an initial 3-year budget totaling US$206 million. Much of its field work will begin in 2011, with an initial focus on East and West Africa as well as South Asia’s Indo-Gangetic Plain, regions that are especially vulnerable to climate change impacts.

“The program fits within a comprehensive new vision for the CGIAR that encompasses multiple collaborative initiatives dealing with staple crops, livestock, vital natural resources, fragile ecosystems and policy,” said Lloyd Le Page, Chief Executive Officer of the CGIAR Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres. “CCAFS will work with all the other programs toward the shared goals of achieving food security, reducing poverty and helping rural people cope with climate change.”

CCAFS partners will identify technologies and policies for climate change adaptation and mitigation that are suitable for poor, smallholder farmers and other rural people. Scientists will also refine models used to predict the impacts of a changing climate on agriculture and livelihoods, and identify ways to select hardier crop varieties and livestock breeds as well as novel farming and food systems that are suitable for future climate conditions.

“The CGIAR centers have always worked to help farmers in poor countries cope with challenging conditions by providing drought-tolerant crops or better soil and water management strategies,” said Bruce Campbell, CCAFS Director. “But climate change threatens to alter growing conditions so rapidly and dramatically as to require an intensive effort that draws on the combined talents of all of our centers and partners.”  

How such changes can affect rural livelihoods was the subject of a multimedia presentation shown during the CCAFS launch event. It vividly depicted the consequences of a temperature increase of two degrees Celsius for rural people in northwest Ghana.

Agriculture and Forestry: Allies or Antagonists?

Despite a longstanding antagonistic relationship, the agriculture and forestry sectors are coming together, prompted by a growing recognition that one needs the other to address successfully the intertwined challenges of climate change, poverty reduction and food security.

Representatives of the two sectors took important steps toward a new understanding through a roundtable discussion during Agriculture and Rural Development Day 2010, which was held on 4 December in parallel with the United Nations Climate Change Conference under way in Cancún, Mexico. Participants addressed the question of whether agricultural intensification might contribute to both food security as well as climate change mitigation, particularly in relation to new REDD+ schemes.

This seemed at first like a less than promising point of departure – more a shot across the bow than a warm embrace. After all, agriculture is one of the main drivers of deforestation. So, if farmers can produce more on less land sustainably, making agriculture more profitable, this could act as an enticement for them to burn even more forest for crop production. Yet, agriculturalists have maintained for decades that a more intensive agriculture actually reduces the pressure on forests.

Referring to this latter proposition as the Borlaug hypothesis, David Kaimowitz of the Ford Foundation offered a deliberately provocative and critical analysis, insisting that agricultural intensification in fact often comes at the expense of forests. Several panelists widened the debate, with Fahmuddin Agus of Indonesia’s Soil Research Institute citing examples of agriculture increasing and decreasing deforestation. Pauline Nantongo Kalunda of Ecotrust in Uganda offered insights into the challenges and possibilities of intensifying agriculture through carbon-friendly methods, like agroforestry.

In the end, the debate proved more cathartic than provocative. It questioned simplistic concepts like the agriculture versus forest dichotomy and the notion that food consumption is driven purely by increasing population and incomes. In their place, it left a more nuanced understanding of the varied country contexts in which the relationship between forests and a more intensive agriculture actually plays out.

The discussion also pointed to a number of quite reasonable measures for making the relationship work, such as providing secure tenure so that both forests and agriculture yield more benefits for rural people, promoting agricultural intensification on already cleared land, halting deforestation for extensive livestock grazing and reducing waste of food, fuel and fertilizer as a means to satisfy growing demand for agricultural products.

Confronting Climate Change Today and Together

If words have so far failed to gain an important place for agriculture in the international climate agenda, then perhaps action will succeed – especially collective action based on good ideas and backed by significant financing.

This was a key message from the opening session of Agriculture and Rural Development Day 2010, held on Saturday, 4 December, in parallel with the United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place in Cancún, Mexico.

Effective action requires strong leadership, and Mexico is doing its part through leadership by example, according to Ignacio Rivera Rodríguez, Sub-Secretary for Rural Development in Mexico’s Secretariat for Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food.

The country has defined a series of concrete measures for mitigating and adapting to climate change in agriculture, and it has set ambitious goals for progress on both fronts by 2012, including an emissions reduction in agriculture of 7.83 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Alberto Cárdenas Jiménez, Senator for Mexico’s Jalisco State, elaborated on the new  measures, putting them in the broader Latin American context.

Inger Andersen, CGIAR Fund Chair and Vice President of Sustainable Development, World Bank, cited further examples of decisive action, such as the spread of Evergreen Agriculture in Africa and creation of the continent’s first biocarbon project in Kenya. These and other cases demonstrate impressively how climate-smart farming practices are already being put into practice, contributing to the “triple win” of food security, agricultural productivity growth and carbon capture.

Effective action also requires collective will and investment. If there is one word that best describes Africa’s agriculture, it is “decapitalized,” according to Josue Dioné, Director of the Food Security and Sustainable Development Division in the United Nations Economic Commision for Africa.

He painted a bleak picture of agriculture in the region, citing stagnant crop productivity, limited use of irrigation and inputs, and weak institutions – problems that climate change will greatly complicate. Dioné also pointed to the big gap between commitments to agriculture on paper and action on the ground.

But in addition, he described important progress in the creation of a new framework for regional cooperation focused on strategic agricultural commodities. Treating climate change as an opportunity and not just a threat, this cooperation involves the development and diffusion of new technologies as well as institutional initiatives, such as innovative crop insurance schemes.

With the largest population of any continent – one that depends heavily on a single food crop, rice – Asia is highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, as evidenced by increasingly common natural disasters, according to Xu Yinlong of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. He catalogued numerous practical measures for confronting this threat – such as vulnerability mapping, shifts in cropping systems and improved water management – emphasizing the need for more active technology transfer within the region.

Farmers eagerly await such actions and are keen to get involved, said Don McCabe, who is a farmer first but also President of the Soil Conservation Council of Canada. Defining farmers essentially as “managers of carbon and nitrogen cycles,” he said they can do a lot to put more organic carbon in the soil, helping to mitigate climate change while strengthening food security and raising rural incomes. But in order for their contribution to count, he added, it must receive recognition and support through both government policies and markets.

In a pointed appeal on farmers’ behalf, he said “Show me the money, and I’ll show you the results.”

Climate of Cooperation

The November issue of CGIAR eNews, released on the eve of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico, samples a wide variety of collaborative research addressing the closely intertwined challenges of climate change, agriculture and food security.

A theme essay takes stock of current knowledge about the impacts of climate change on farming and food systems. It also describes various approaches for managing climate variability and risk now and over the long term. In addition, it assesses changes in farming practices that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions without compromising farmers’ food security and livelihoods.

The essay is based on a comprehensive review prepared recently by the Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), a joint initiative of the CGIAR and Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP). Intended to help chart the way forward for research and policy action, the review was presented at the Global Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change, held at The Hague, The Netherlands, in early November.

The theme essay is accompanied by an interview with CCAFS scientist Pramod Aggarwal about climate change impacts in South Asia. This is followed by a series of articles on research under way at various CGIAR Centers, covering topics such as new approaches for carbon accounting in rural landscapes, the development of drought-tolerant crops and the use of diverse forms of water storage to cope with increasingly erratic weather.