Climate Smart Agriculture: The new Holy Grail of agricultural development?

sunflowersAgriculture is high on the political agenda at COP-17 in Durban. Many would argue that this is as it should be: agriculture will be key to any strategy to adapt to climate change, particularly in an African context, and the agricultural sector is a major emitter of greenhouse gases globally. Last week, a number of key institutions issued an open letter calling for an Agricultural Work Programme under the Climate Convention.

The concept of “Climate Smart Agriculture” is gaining increasing popularity as a unifying concept on climate change and agriculture. It was promoted recently through the African Ministerial Conference on Climate Smart Agriculture and a global science conference held at Wageningen University in October. First coined by FAO in 2009, it is defined as ‘agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, resilience, reduces or removes Greenhouse Gases (GHGs), and enhances achievement of national food security and development goals’. In other words, Climate Smart Agriculture strategies are those that achieve so called “triple wins” of adaptation, mitigation and development. Climate Smart Agriculture was also at the centre of the third Agriculture and Rural Development Day in Durban, held Saturday 3rd December. The day showcased a number of examples of what Climate Smart Agriculture could mean in practice, including agroforestry and conservation agriculture.

The idea is appealing. Indeed, it is hard to disagree that if it works, it could indeed bring benefits to millions of people while at the same time leading to low carbon development pathways. However, this is a big IF, and considerable challenges remain. One important concern is the weight it gives to mitigation. There are serious doubts and concerns over the technical mitigation potentials, whether payments to farmers will be more than symbolic, and over the environmental consequences. Some argue the payment to farmers for carbon storage should be seen merely as an ‘added bonus’ to farmers, and that the main benefits to them will be productivity gains and increased resilience to climate stress. However, these are concerns not to be taken lightly.

Another key issue is that to succeed in the long run, Climate Smart agricultural practices will require not only funding but also strong political leadership, supportive and coherent government policies and strategies, land tenure arrangements that make investments worthwhile, and, importantly, access to markets and inputs. These are not new challenges. On the contrary, they have been at the heart of debates on agricultural development for many decades, and it is clear that there are no quick fixes for any of them.

So, where does this leave us? Will Climate Smart Agriculture remain a distant dream, will it become another empty slogan, or will it lead to lasting improvements for millions of crop farmers and pastoralists in Africa? Climate Smart Agriculture presents an optimistic message of the future of agriculture in Africa. Crucially, however, it hinges on a belief that climate change can help facilitate changes that will lead not only to short term gains but also tackling the structural reasons for why farmers in Africa are vulnerable in the first place. This remains to be seen: As argued by a series of papers in the IDS Bulletin papers earlier this year, a much better understanding is needed of how political processes are playing out at national and sub-national levels with the climate funding that is now starting to emerge: Who are the actors, and whose goals are taking the centre stage? Three of the papers were drawn from the DFID/IDRC-funded RPA project, focusing on understanding policy processes in the agricultural sector in East Africa.

FAC is contributing to this debate through the Climate Change Theme. Reviewing narratives and actors on climate change and agriculture in a historical context, Paula Silva-Villanueva and Rocio Hiraldo show in a new FAC paper (summary) that a number of the current debates around agriculture and development can be traced back to old debates. A new FAC Policy Brief by Merylyn Hedger looks at how agriculture is situated in the international negotiations, and another (Andy Newsham and colleagues) on policy processes around the integration of local and scientific knowledges. FAC has also commissioned four case studies, to be published early 2012, to analyse how climate change is being framed in the agricultural sector in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Ghana.

FAC Climate Theme Co-ordinator, Dr Lars Otto Naess is in Durban for the 17th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP17).