How to improve our understanding of climate-smart agriculture

If trends in population growth, human diet, and waste in food systems continue on their current trajectory, food production would have to increase by about 70% by 2050. Given this prediction, the concept of “climate-smart agriculture” (CSA) was developed in an attempt to join agriculture, development, and climate change under one global agenda that focuses on investments in agricultural research and innovation.

A recent opinion paper co-authored by World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) scientist Henry Neufeldt, head of the climate change research program, Molly Jahn of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and scientists from the Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), critically examines the concept of “climate-smart agriculture” (FAO 2010) and argues that it has the potential to move us, the global community, towards “safe operating spaces for agricultural and food systems”, and overall improvements for human well-being.

Proper land-use for agriculture. World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) archives.

Forming the premise of the paper Neufeldt says that “we must critically evaluate our current understanding of CSA in order to improve our ability to predict with greater certainty whether future investments in agricultural and food systems can really be considered climate-smart”.

Currently, agriculture techniques are often considered climate-smart if they meet one of the following criteria: 1) improve the productivity or the efficient use of natural resources which would contribute to improving food security and development; 2) reduce vulnerability to climate variability; or 3) increase carbon sequestration and reduce agricultural emissions.

The authors identify three major problem areas that the current understanding of CSA fails to encompass: 1) it fails to recognize the differences between countries and cultures and the context-specific needs of each for food, water, and other ecosystem resources; 2) it fails to consider broader ecological, social, and political impacts from different agricultural practices; and 3) CSA focuses primarily on developing countries, a focus that is argued as too narrow since food and nutritional security are not limited to the developing world.

Based on these shortcomings in our current understanding of CSA principles the authors develop an alternative conception of CSA: agriculture and food systems are climate-smart when it can be shown that they lead to safer and more sustainable practices.

This is altogether challenging because it will require making certain changes to the current practices of funding and evaluating agricultural research and practices, as well as modifying our assessment of the impacts of agricultural management decisions on human well-being.

This, the authors argue, would be possible if certain key “innovation” areas are met in our ability to recognize and achieve long-term goals for safer spaces:

  • It is necessary to incorporate adaptive management strategies that will result in improved changes based on lessons learned, for both anticipated and undesired outcomes, and ensure for long-term human health and food security
  • In order to assess whether these adaptive management strategies or other CSA modifications are successful, indicators and other metrics should be developed to provide relevant feedback for decision-making
  • The use of quality data and information in analytical tools and scenarios will enable to predict potential impacts of new strategies which would then help inform decision-making
  • Science policy dialogues must be established between relevant stakeholders, which will be instrumental in determining credible science-based policy decisions in the context of a changing climate and growing environmental and social changes

While the authors considered these four points essential to moving the world towards a safe space for humanity, it is important to remember that they are only part of the solution. Indeed, as Jahn points out:

“The four areas for innovation should be implemented in addition to large investments in sustainable natural resource management, low emissions development programs, and a complete transformation of global food systems”. This, she says, “will improve our ability to predict with greater certainty if our future investments in agriculture are climate-smart”.

The Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) is another major group that is working to bring CSA to the public policy agenda. For example, CCAFS is working with West and East African farmers to test a variety of climate-smart activities through a Climate-Smart Village model. This long-term project will raise awareness among farmers about climate risks and helps them find alternative agricultural practices that may help mitigate these impacts.

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