Linking evidence with action: the pathway to climate-smart agriculture

To be climate-smart means to adapt, for instance with drought and submergence tolerant varieties. Photo: G. Smith (CCAFS)
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Jul 24, 2015

by

David Valentin Schweiger (CCAFS Coordinating Unit)

Debate among scientists at climate conference in Paris signals the way forward for climate-smart agriculture (CSA) in developing countries and beyond.

It is a huge challenge that we have to satisfy an ever-increasing demand for food under a changing, more variable climate. But it is a dilemma that we have to do so while also having to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A dilemma this is, partly because agriculture itself produces between 20 and 30 percent of overall global emissions.

Agriculture's contribution to GHG emissions

Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) is an attempt to solve precisely this dilemma. It is a concept which aims to transform agriculture systems by sustainably increasing farm yields, while helping farmers adapt to climate change and reduce emissions from agriculture where possible and appropriate. It provides opportunities for policy-makers across the globe to implement more comprehensive agriculture development plans in the face of climate change. 

In July, at the Our Common Future Under Climate Change conference in Paris, scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), working with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), discussed the practicability of CSA.

Their debate, titled "Climate-smart agriculture: propaganda or paradigm shift", set out to clarify doubts and convince sceptics that CSA does have great potential. The event was co-convened by ICRAF, the French Centre for International Cooperation on Agronomic Development Research (CIRAD), the Dutch University of Wageningen.

The outcomes of the Climate-Smart Agriculture 2015 Global Science Conference were highlighted in the keynote address by Dr. Jean-François Soussana, Scientific Director for the Environment at French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). Soussana noted the global momentum around CSA. He called for conceptual frameworks to be developed to allow for CSA to be scaled out, establishing climate-proofed and more diverse and robust agricultural systems. 

One problem for implementing CSA, it seems, is the perceived complexity of the concept. As Dr. Christine Lamanna of ICRAF put it, CSA is all about the "multiple".

"We’re talking about multiple practices, with multiple outcomes, and multiple criteria on which to choose the practices. We’re talking about benefits both at a local scale for farmers or at a large spatial scale, which may imply significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions," she said during the session.

Having to deal with such complexity is a "tall order for policy" Lamanna also said. Some voices say that CSA is simply too hard for governments to use. Others argue that more evidence of impact is needed in order to ease the use of the concept.

Such studies are in the making. For instance, ICRAF is currently conducting a meta-analysis in order to assess the evidence base for CSA. Although this study is forthcoming later this year, early insights from the data show there are practices with clear CSA benefits.

The new study builds on previous assessment work, such as this sourcebook by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as well as this booklet on CSA success stories by CCAFS and the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA).

According to the scientists there are good reasons to be optimistic. 

"Is it possible for policy to actually address CSA? Regardless of whether we think that’s true, it’s happening. And it is happening fast. Five governments in Africa have already written policies around CSA and 20 more are rapidly following in their footsteps", Lamanna said during the debate.

Caitlin Corner-Dolloff, a Climate Change Adaptation Specialist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), reiterated the interest of stakeholders to include CSA in policies and implementation plans. But she noted "we need to simplify the final decisions that policy-makers have to take and present information in ways that are clear and in line with what decision makers need."

This is why her team has created the CSA Prioritization Framework, which aims to guide decision-makers to the creation of CSA investment portfolios. "The challenge for all of us," she says, "is to get all of this complex technical information into digestible pieces for policy-makers to take forward and put into policy frameworks. We must move beyond generic recommendations and laundry lists of options to specific strategies that can actually mean something for scaling out implementation of best-bet practices."

While CSA is heavily advanced in the context of developing countries, it is also forming a strategic priority within Europe, as Thomas Long of Wageningen University pointed out. An ongoing EU project, CSA Booster, presented by Long, helps diffuse the technological innovations believed to be necessary for a more widespread adoption of CSA across Europe. It tackles the reality that many CSA initiatives are not being adopted widely, so bottlenecks need to be identified and addressed.

Dr. Patrick Caron, Director General for Research and Strategy at CIRAD, emphasised that even with the best evidence on best-bet CSA option, good governance models are key to scaling-out CSA. This powerful combination is needed to ensure agriculture systems make the needed transformations moving forward in the face of climate change. 

Also at the Our Common Future conference

Climate-smart agriculture at the policy level was discussed in another parallel presentation in Paris, held by CCAFS Scenarios Officer Joost Vervoort. He provided insights into his work where he and his team work directly with policy makers, researchers and other national stakeholders in six global regions on providing scenario-guided policy development. 

The work, led by CCAFS and University of Oxford, has gained momentum in the past few years as more and more decision makers uncover the value of climate-proofing their agriculture and food security plans and strategies and making the switch to climate-smart agriculture.

The process includes building an open dialogue with government representatives, where drafts of policies, implementation plans or investments are tested against tailor-made scenarios. Working with on-going policy processes increases the usefulness of the scenario-guided planning work and ensures that strengthened policies are implemented.

Learn moreAn inclusive way to climate-proof development policies and plans