Setting the benchmark: the scientific basis of climate-smart agriculture

Edward Ouko’s climate-smart farm site in western Kenya. Photo: C. Schubert (CCAFS)


Little empirical evidence has been put forth to systematically evaluate the outcomes of climate-smart agriculture practices. A team of experts evaluated the scientific substantiation on the impacts of climate-smart agriculture. It is expected that this systematic review will set the scientific benchmark for climate-smart agriculture practices to inform the next steps in the development of agricultural programming and policy.

Since its presentation at the 2010 conference on agriculture, food security and climate change, climate-smart agriculture – agricultural systems that increase food production, improve resilience of farming systems and mitigate climate change, where possible – has quickly been integrated into the global development agenda. Today, initiatives worldwide ranging from The Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture to the World Economic Forum have taken steps to help farming and food production more climate-smart. The Green Climate Fund and the Global Environmental Facility have also prioritized climate-smart agriculture for their agendas in Africa.

Africa leads in efforts to push for the uptake of climate-smart agriculture.

Convened by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in collaboration with development and technical actors, the Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture in Africa aims to scale-up climate-smart agriculture to reach 6 million farming households by 2021. This is part of NEPAD’s wider Vision 25 x 25 program that has set the target of reaching 25 million smallholder farm households by 2025.

Besides Africa, other climate-smart agriculture initiatives are taking root in other parts of the world such as Peru on genetic diversity and China on sustainable grazing, just to name a few.

Demystifying climate-smart agriculture

Unlike historical agriculture development that aims to increase productivity, there is a push to recognize both livelihood and environmental outcomes with climate-smart agriculture. However, the definition of climate-smart agriculture remains vague.

Climate smart-agriculture is not a new set of practices but rather an integrated approach to the implementation of agricultural development programming policies. Rather than presenting a definitive description, three principles generally apply for understanding, identifying and selecting which farm level management practices constitute a climate-smart approach as outlined below:

  • Climate-smart agriculture addresses climate or weather related risk while improving food security
  • Climate-smart agriculture achieves at minimum two benefits with productivity being the priority
  • Climate-smart agriculture technologies are socially and culturally appropriate to the area in which they are to be practiced.

The study

So far, little empirical evidence has been put forth to systematically evaluate the outcomes of climate-smart practices. Instead, it is often supported with case studies, lacking sufficient details to confidently generalize outcomes with changing practice.

 The scientific basis of climate-smart agriculture: A systematic review protocol. CCAFS Working Paper no. 138.

The scientific basis of climate-smart agriculture: A systematic review protocol.
CCAFS Working Paper no. 138.

A team of experts, led by World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) with support from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), FAO and the University of Vermont, working under the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) have been evaluating the scientific basis of climate-smart agriculture.

The study was based on the research question “How do farm-level climate-smart agriculture technologies affect food production, resilience/adaptive capacity, and climate change mitigation in farming systems of developing countries?”

The team is evaluating the impact of 73 promising, and often cited, farm-level management practices across five categories of agronomy, agroforestry, livestock, post-harvest management and energy systems to assess their contribution to the three pillars of climate-smart agriculture.

Each study in the review conformed to four inclusion criteria:

  • It examined at least one of the chosen climate-smart agriculture management practices or technologies
  • It included information on at least one indicator for one outcome relevant to climate-smart agriculture objectives
  • The study location is in a developing country
  • The study design included primary data with a comparison between an improved/ potentially climate-smart practice, and a conventional or baseline practice

Searches were conducted in English language peer-reviewed journals accessible on the Internet and were limited to the databases of the Web of Science and Elsevier’s Scopus.

From theory into action

This systematic review, representing the largest meta-analysis of agricultural practices to date, will establish the benchmark for what works where to inform the next steps in the development of agricultural programming and policy.

The team identified some preliminary results from the study. First, quantitative syntheses generate an unbiased assessment on the potential of climate-smart action to achieve benefits. Secondly, synergies among productivity, resilience and mitigation occur the majority of the time with climate-smart agriculture. However, trade-offs are also apparent. Lastly, various factors limit the adoption of climate-smart agriculture. Context needs to be taken into consideration when recommending climate-smart practices.

The resulting data will be compiled into a searchable web-based database and analytical engine that can be used to assess the relative effectiveness and strength of evidence for climate-smart agriculture, as well as identify best-fit practices for specific farming and development contexts.

All data will be publicly available in 2016 through multiple outlets including a web-based searchable database and Harvard’s Dataverse .


Peris Owiti's climate-smart farm in western Kenya. Photo: C. Schubert (CCAFS)

Peris Owiti’s climate-smart farm in western Kenya.
Photo: C. Schubert (CCAFS)

Major resources will likely be invested in climate-smart agriculture in the future and it is important that these are directed towards achieving the goals of increased food production, improved resilience/adaptive capacity of farming systems and climate change mitigation. What is required is an understanding of what is really known about the ability for climate-smart agriculture to achieve the intended goals, the synergies and tradeoffs among its three pillars, and for whom and under what conditions,.

Download the full paper here.

Rosenstock, TS, Lamanna C, Chesterman S, Bell P, Arslan A, Richards M, Akinleye AO, Champalle C, Cheng Z, Corner-Dolloff C, Dohn J, English W, Eyrich A-S, Girvetz EH, Kerr A, Lizarazo M, Madalinska A, McFatridge S, Morris KS, Namoi N, Poultouchidou A, Ravina da Silva M, Rayess S, Rioux J, Ström H, Tully KL and Zhou W. 2016. The scientific basis of climate-smart agriculture: A systematic review protocol. CCAFS Working Paper no. 138. CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Copenhagen, Denmark. Permanent link:

The authors acknowledge majority funding for data compilation, review, and meta-analysis from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security Research (CCAFS) Flagship Program on Climate-Smart Agriculture. Supplemental funding came through support by United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) SO1 funds facilitated by the EPIC programme, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), CCAFS Flagship Program on Low-emissions Development, FAO Mitigation of Climate Change in Agriculture (MICCA) Programme and the Evidence-Based Forestry Program of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Also see:'

Susan Onyango

Susan Onyango is the Global Communications Coordinator at the World Agroforestry Centre and is based at the headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. With over 15 year’s experience in communication, she ensures efficient and effective coordination of communication support to units and regions at ICRAF. She joined ICRAF in 2014 as communications specialist for the Climate Change Unit. Susan holds a MA communication studies and a BA in English. Twitter: @susanonyango

You may also like...