Making climate-smart agriculture work for the poor

At the UN Climate Change talks in Durban, South Africa there is much talk about climate-smart agriculture.

While agriculture accounts for an estimated 10-12% of global greenhouse gas emissions, there is enormous potential for improved agricultural practices to reduce these, and in some cases – such as through agroforestry –actually mitigate climate change.

However, unless climate-smart agriculture specifically targets food security and livelihoods it is doomed to fail.

For a smallholder farmer in a developing country to ‘improve’ their agricultural practices so that their emissions are reduced, they must have good reason to do so. Knowing they are helping to combat global climate change just won’t cut it.

Fortunately, in many cases, climate-smart agriculture practices also offer the possibility of greater yields, offering improved food security and increased income as well as providing greater resilience to future climate variations. Many practices can provide multiple benefits, as is the case with the integration of trees for improving soil fertility, providing livestock fodder and perhaps also fuelwood.

The challenge is how to actually bring about a change from current agricultural practices to those that are considered climate-smart, such as: agroforestry; intercropping with legumes; rotational cropping; using new crop varieties such as those that are drought resistant; cut ‘n carry feed for livestock or fodder crops; rotational grazing; minimum tillage; contour planting; and water storage.

The main obstacle to overcome is that food insecure farmers find it hard to innovate and invest in better management systems when they are fully occupied finding sufficient food to survive.

Our research into farm households in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda has shown a distinct negative relationship between the number of food deficit months and the innovativeness of smallholder farmers.

There is a need to provide safety nets such as cash, credits, insurance products or other goods that help them overcome their barriers to innovation, before farmers can make any significant changes to their farming practices, yet to-date this has not occurred. Many improved management practices provide benefits to farmers only after considerable periods of time which is inhibitive to poor households because investing in new practices requires labour and incurs costs that must be borne before the benefits can be reaped.

Combining practices that deliver short-term benefits with those that give longer-term benefits can help reduce opportunity costs and provide greater incentives to invest in better management practices.

Payments for carbon sequestration may be an appropriate way of covering the time lag between investing in climate-smart practices and obtaining the environmental and economic benefits. Currently only Plan Vivo provide activity-based ex-ante payments for terrestrial carbon sequestration.

National agriculture development plans with appropriate institutions at national to local levels, provision of infrastructure, access to information and training and stakeholder participation and improvement of tenure arrangements are also necessary for long-term transformation towards climate-smart agriculture.

To read more about this topic, download:

Neufeldt H, Kristjanson P, Thorlakson T, Gassner A, Norton-Griffiths M, Place F, Langford K, 2011. Making climate-smart agriculture work for the poor. ICRAF Policy Brief 12. World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Nairobi, Kenya.

To find out more about the World Agroforestry Centre’s events during the conference, visit the Centre’s COP17 web page

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