Creating safe operating spaces for global food systems through climate-smart agriculture

As the UN Climate Week is underway, leaders around the world are deliberating on concrete actions leading to a new climate change agreement to be unveiled in 2015. Among events lined up was the launch of the Global Climate-Smart Agriculture Alliance, which aims to enable 500 million farmers worldwide to practice climate-smart agriculture.

About four years since the concept of climate-smart agriculture was first presented, the relationship between agriculture, development and climate change is still unclear. Any improved agricultural practice can be considered climate-smart, but is this representative of climate-smart agriculture?

Dr Tony Simons speaks during the UN Climate Summit Forests Pavilion. Image via @UNORCID (Twitter)

Dr Tony Simons speaks during the UN Climate Summit Forests Pavilion. Image via @UNORCID (Twitter)

Speaking at the UN Climate Summit Forests Pavilion, Dr. Tony Simons, director general for the World Agroforestry Centre, called for increased investments for research in climate-smart agriculture for it to effectively meet human and environmental needs.

Drawing on the original framing, climate-smart agriculture has been applied to diverse aspects of agriculture ranging from field-scale agricultural practices to food supply food chains and food systems generally. Beyond agricultural practices and outcomes, various institutions, policies, finance, safety nets, capacity building and assessments have all been identified as enabling climate-smart agriculture.

Without going into details of how climate-smart agriculture is being implemented, we already have some outstanding success stories. One example is the agroforestry practice of farmer managed natural regeneration, where farmers allow the roots of trees still present in their fields to regenerate and then manage these trees to provide timber, fuelwood, fodder, fruits and nut. This approach has restored more than 5 million hectares of degraded land and improved the food security of around 2.5 million people in the West African Sahel region.

However, the current understanding of climate-smart agriculture presents challenges around: 1) consideration of differences between countries and cultures, and context specific needs of each for food, water and other ecosystem resources; 2) the broader ecological, social and political impacts from different agricultural practices; and 3) food security not only the developing countries but also in the developed world.

This recognition provides a strong mandate for agricultural systems that better meet both short and long term human and environmental needs; what we would consider a ‘safe operating space’.

In our view, agriculture and food systems are climate-smart when it can be shown that they bring us closer to safe operating spaces. This requires transformational changes in governance, management and use of our national resources that are underpinned by enabling political, social and economic conditions.

How will we make this happen? By changing how we fund and evaluate agricultural research, how we evaluate agricultural practices, and how we describe relevant parameters of human conditions linked to our choices in agriculture, natural resources and food systems.

We need to incorporate adaptive management strategies that will result in improved changes based on lessons learned, for both anticipated and undesired outcomes, and ensure long-term human health and food security.

We need indicators and other metrics to assess where these adaptive management strategies or other climate-smart agriculture modifications are successful, to provide feedback for decision-making.

We need quality data from new analytical tools that will allow us to predict the potential impacts of new strategies.

We need science policy dialogues between the stakeholders, to determine credible science-based policy decisions in the context of a changing climate and growing environmental and social changes.

This, together with massive investments in sustainable natural resource management, a transformation in global food systems and a clear path to achieving low carbon emissions, will indeed help determine if we are on the path towards achieving climate-smart agriculture.

This blog is based on the research paperBeyond climate-smart agriculture: toward safe operating spaces for global food systems

Neufeldt et al.: Beyond climate-smart agriculture: toward safe operating spaces for global food systems. Agriculture & Food Security 2013 2 :12.

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Susan Onyango

Susan Onyango

Susan Onyango is the communications specialist for climate change for the World Agroforestry Centre and is based at the headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. With over 12 year’s experience in communication, she promotes the World Agroforestry Centre’s work on climate change, writes blogs and provides communication advice and support to scientists. Susan holds a MA communication studies and a BA in English. Twitter: @susanonyango

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