Climate-smart agriculture

As the impacts of climate change increasingly threaten global food security, initiatives aiming to scale out the adoption of climate-adapted agricultural practices are beginning to gain ground. 

Farmers in Nyando, Kenya have adopted a range of technologies tailored to increase their ability to adapt to climate change, manage risks and build resilience © S. Kilungu (CCAFS)
Farmers in Nyando, Kenya have adopted a range of technologies tailored to increase their ability to adapt to climate change, manage risks and build resilience © S. Kilungu (CCAFS)

Monday, 07 August 2017

Farmers, researchers and policymakers are exploring a variety of options for climate-smart agriculture (CSA) to ensure sustainable food security and bolster agriculture’s resilience. 

At a time when climate change is affecting agriculture as never before, innovations in CSA are assisting farmers to reach their production goals and build resilience. Farmers are adapting the way they work to cope with changing climate conditions and, at the same time, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but lasting solutions require a range of inputs: in the field, in research laboratories and in the offices at every level of government.  

Farmers in least developed countries (LDCs) – classified by the UN in terms of their low gross national income, weak human assets and high degree of economic instability – are among those most at risk from climate change as they rely on marginal land and lack the economic resources to cope with erratic weather events and extended droughtsAt the UN climate change negotiations in Bonn in May 2017the LDC group chairGebru Jember Endalew of Ethiopia, highlighted the urgency of the situation. He stated that, “The longer we wait, the more costly adaptation, loss and damage, and mitigation will become. We risk undermining our efforts to eradicate poverty and keep in line with our Sustainable Development Goals.”

International exchange and collaboration 

Climate change is bringing higher tides and wild weather in Pacific and Caribbean regions, which is already causing rising sea levels, erosion and flooding on populated atolls. Preventative measures, such as the construction of sea walls and raised roads, are essential for protecting small island populations from these impacts. In agriculture, the use of smart farming techniques can also help to lessen the threat of the changing environment to people’s livelihoods (the field report on the World Wide Fund for Nature’s CSA projects in the Pacific provide good examples of this). In October 2016, nine Pacific Island researchers and extension officers embarked on a study tour of Jamaica and Trinidad to learn and exchange CSA practices for cultivating staple crops, such as yam, dasheen (taro) and sweet potato. Given the similarity of climatic conditions in the Pacific and Caribbean, Vili Caniogo, the Pacific Community’s (SPC) adviser for the Pacific Agriculture Policy Project, stated that “these south-south learnings will help officers from both regions exchange, adopt and disseminate new, proven methods,” particularly in regards to CSA.  

Evidence has shown that some crops are better suited to growing under less predictable climate conditions in the Pacific and Caribbean regions, such as breadfruit and sweet potato – crops with fairly high climate resilience. The researchers and extension officers involved in the CTA-supported project, therefore, interacted with farmers to exchange knowledge about the crops they had found to be most resilient, which will benefit producers and consumers in both the Pacific and Caribbean Islands. Those involved in the tour were also introduced to different projects in Caribbean root crop value chains, such as Red Stripe cassava beer and a cassava flour initiative, so they could take ideas for sustainable income generation back to the Pacific.  

Policy-level intervention 

Governments everywhere need to support their climate-smart farmers through planning and coordination, including integrating climate change considerations into agricultural policy and plans, as well as adopting a strategic, sector-wide approach, rather than simply providing support, project by project. The Africa Climate Business Plan, launched at the UN climate change conference in Paris, in October 2016 (COP 21), aimed to do just that. The plan is focused on addressing the continent’s intricately-linked climate and development agendas, with many government and development agencies committing to integrating CSA into their policies, programmes, plans and projects.  

Working towards a similar goal, FAO is supporting national governments in the Caribbean to develop climate-smart agricultural management initiatives and policies, such as efforts to protect water resources from climate-related events. The Caribbean region has seven of the world's top 36 water-stressed countries, and yet most agriculture in the region is rain-fed. As droughts become more frequent, the pressure on farmers to produce sufficient food for their families and the market increases. In addition to water management initiatives, Caribbean governments have taken a strong role in supporting other agricultural activities and developments, including stock and crop breeding, fertilisers, pest control and marketing activities.  

With agriculture and forestry underpinning the livelihoods of millions of people and accounting for a major slice of export income for most countries in the Pacific, the region’s policymakers are also looking into how they can best support CSA. “It’s vital that we improve our understanding of how climate change will affect these sectors,” stated Dr Audrey Aumua, SPC’s deputy director-general. As a guideline for Pacific governments, SPC has recently published a book on the Vulnerability of Pacific Agriculture and Forestry to Climate Change. The book assesses the impacts of climate change and examines ways to adapt agriculture and forestry to improve economic development, food security and livelihoods in a changing climate, with a focus on traditional food staples, export commodities, horticultural crops and spices, livestock, and native and plantation forests. A 2016 publication by CTA and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), Climate Change and Pacific Island Food Systems, also targets policymakers in the region by reviewing four plausible scenarios of climate change and its impact on agriculture and fishers. 

Land management and conservation solutions 

Although climate-related risks to forestry exist, the future impacts for Pacific forests are considered low, provided sound forest management practices are followed, such as protecting and replanting mangrove and coastal forests, and reducing flash flooding runoff to vulnerable riverine forests. Trees are not only valuable for their wood and the fruit that they produce, but they also help to reduce erosion and protect farmland from harsh weather, which is becoming increasingly necessary in Pacific and Caribbean nations. In Haiti, as a preventative measure against landslides and erosions, a project is strategically planting 3 million tree seedlings on the hillsides in Kenscoff and Belle Fontaine. About 60% of the trees will bear fruit (breadfruit, loquat and peach) to complement farmers’ income in the future. The Chanje Lavi Plantѐ programme is also working with 10 farmer organisations in Haiti to finalise the conversion of 50 ha of terraces in Kenscoff and Belle Fontaine, to allow farmers to grow crops on the hillside whilst protecting the slopes from erosion by using vetiver to stabilise the soil. 

The use of trees for sustainable management and efficient cultivation of land is also being adopted in Niger to cope with the impacts of climate change and avoid desertification – almost two-thirds of Niger’s land is desert, with only 10% available for farming. Working with partners, such as the World Agroforestry Center, the World Bank is helping to boost agricultural productivity and enhance drought resilience with the development of climate-smart villages in 60 Niger communities. In the village of Kampa Zarma, farmers are rehabilitating vegetation by replanting trees when there is a risk of drought. In Niger trees have the benefits of providing a windbreak and helping to stabilise the sand around farmland, as well as increasing soil fertility and humidity, so that crops can remain productive during droughts. The development of such climate-smart villages in Niger is currently benefiting 500,000 farmers and agro-pastoralists – some of the most vulnerable communities to climate change – and plans are to expand efforts to Kenya. 

In western Kenya, 60,000 farmers are already using a wide range of CSA methods on 45,000 ha of land to increase the organic matter in the soil with the long-term goal of improving the water absorption, nutrient supply and biodiversity of the soil, whilst helping to prevent erosion. The Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project aims to foster more productive, sustainable and climate-friendly agriculture, to increase farm yields, boost food security and make agriculture more resilient to climate change. The sustainable agricultural land management (SALM) practices promoted by the project have successfully increased maize yields by 90% over the last 5 years in the Bungoma, Kisumu and Siaya counties of Kenya. In 2014, the project began issuing carbon credits to farmers under the Verified Carbon Standard for sequestering carbon in soil. One credit represents a reduction of 24,788 t of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is equivalent to emissions from 5,164 vehicles in a year. “Carbon credits are creating a revenue stream that enhances the extension services provided to farmers, which are critical to the adoption of these [SALM] practices and also adds to farmers’ income beyond their increased crop yields,” stated Diarietou Gaye, World Bank country director for Kenya. 

The role of technology and precision agriculture 

In Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, CTA’s Southern Africa Flagship project on climate-smart solutions for agriculture, is promoting climate adaptation options by bundling drought tolerant maize, ICT-enabled weather information, crop insurance and diversified livelihood options to 200,000 smallholder farmers in the region. Oluyede Ajayi, senior programme coordinator in charge of the project says that “the project is designed to help move from just talking about the challenge of climate change to how we can help provide solutions that work for farmers, through working with producer groups, policymakers, and establishing a sound business model for the project to encourage active engagement and investment in climate solutions by the private-sector.” CTA and partners are also using the power of satellite data to support extension and advisory services to farmers in Uganda through their Market-led, User-owned ICT4Ag-enabled Information Service  initiative.  

Another project targeting agricultural productivity and resilience to climate change, in vulnerable smallholder farming and pastoral communities in Kenya, seeks to harness the potential of modern technological innovations. The 5-year Kenya Climate-Smart Agriculture Project, designed in collaboration with CCAFS and the Kenyan government, was launched at the end of 2016. The project involves funding interventions that facilitate the adoption of agricultural technologies, innovations, and management practices in order to promote the ‘CSA triple-wins’ of increased productivity, greater resilience and reduced greenhouse gas emissions per unit of output. The project also aims to strengthen CSA research and promote the development of sustainable seed production and distribution systems; as well as support advisory services for farmers on the weather, climate and markets. The latter goal encompasses three subcomponents: improving agrometeorological forecasting and monitoring; using big data to develop a climate-smart, agricultural weather and market information system; and building the institutional and technical capacity for agro-meteorological observation and forecasting, agricultural statistics collection and analyses, and market advisory services. The innovations available to assist in these tasks are examined in Spore’s recent article on precision agriculture.  

The final two components of the project aim to promote activities related to national and county-level coordination and management, and develop a contingency emergency response plan in the event of a natural or man-made crisis in Kenya. To help implement these goals, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has developed a set of county-level climate risk profiles that assess CSA practices in different areas. The profiles examine the level of productivity, resilience and emissions of different CSA practices employed in each county, as well as the institutional, policy and finance interventions that are required. Evan Girvetz, a senior CSA researcher at CIAT, who is leading the initiative stated that, “This level of engagement is extremely important to make sure the profiles reflect the concerns on the ground”. Understanding what farmers are already doing helps to identify strengths, as well as vulnerabilities and risks within specific agricultural value chains, says Caroline Mwongera, a climate scientist at CIAT. She explains that, “Different counties have different priorities: some are tackling drought as a key concern so they may prioritise resilience; others well connected to markets and big cities with good infrastructure could be more concerned with improving productivity. The county-level profiles reflect this complexity.” 

Looking to the future 

An online site that helps researchers and policymakers look forward to 2050, when climate change is expected to be increasingly severe, allows users to examine the different effects of alternative agricultural practices and technologies. The AgriTech Toolbox offers information about the potential impact of the adoption of 10 key technologies for maize, wheat and rice on farm yields, food prices, natural resource use, hunger, malnutrition, land use and global trade up to 2050. The outcome of an International Food Policy Research Institute research project, the Toolbox has been developed alongside a 2014 publication on Food Security in a World of Natural Resource Scarcity: The Role of Agricultural Technologies. Together the book and online database provide the details needed to work out the best mix of policies and investments to tackle the challenges that climate change presents for agriculture.  

In the more immediate future, at the COP 23 meeting in Bonn in November 2017, the summit president and Fiji Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, is seeking to form a grand coalition to accelerate climate action before 2020, including civil society, scientists, the private sector and all levels of government. CSA is central to the core priorities for COP 23, which include building greater resilience for vulnerable nations, especially measures to protect against the impacts of extreme weather events and rising sea levels, as well as boosting access to finance, renewable energy, clean water and affordable climate risk and disaster insurance (see Spore dossier on climate insurance).

For more information on how rural communities and farmers are benefitting from innovative CSA practices read our field report from Benin

Wendy Levy and Stephanie Lynch

Other dossiers

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.