Time for a rethink? Getting smart about politics on climate change and agriculture

In the past few years, the concept of ‘climate-smart agriculture’ has formed a unifying – though also severely contested – concept which has climbed the international development agenda. Defined broadly around the notion of ‘triple wins’, actions that simultaneously increase resilience to climate shocks and stressors, store carbon, and provide development benefits, ‘climate-smart agriculture’ increasingly forms the guiding principle for a large number of actors and pilot actions.

Critics argue that the attention to carbon sequestration is very problematic, in particular for smallholder farmers. Many also fear that investments in climate smart agriculture will skew agricultural investments away from the concerns of the poorest and most vulnerable groups and towards large-scale agriculture.

While a number of pilot actions are underway, we still know little about what this rapid surge in attention to climate change and agriculture will mean in practice. Who defines the agenda? On what basis and on whose terms are particular approaches and technologies favoured as a result? Are interventions driven by particular donor or commercial interests? Are there ways in which they could be driven by the needs of those farmers most vulnerable to the effects of climate change?

The politics of climate change policy

A series of research papers produced by the Future Agricultures Consortium address these and other questions in the context of Ghana, Malawi, Ethiopia and Kenya. These countries share a high exposure to climate risks and a reliance on agriculture for economic development. By comparing these countries, the research papers provide insights into how, why, when and for whom policy processes around climate change and agriculture matter.

A number of findings have emerged from the case studies. First, that national level debates over climate change and agriculture reflect political struggles to set priorities and control expected funding. This is exemplified in the case of Malawi where three key government departments all have claims to leadership on climate change and agriculture. Who leads policy processes determines which strategies are prioritised at national levels and ultimately who gains and who loses on the ground.

Second, though adaptation to climate impacts is the major concern for African governments, mitigation is surprisingly high on the agenda in discussions over climate change and agriculture. The case studies suggest that this is driven by responses to real and expected external funding opportunities from donors.

In Kenya (working paper pdf), for example, we have seen the promotion of carbon sequestration as agencies and organisations re-package their work programmes to align them with the latest donor priorities. This has in turn reinforced a framing of climate change as an external and ‘foreign’ problem. However, findings from the case studies suggest that this is not the whole story: Power also resides with some developing country actors to play donors at their own game.

Fears remain that the external discourse on mitigation might also constitute a backdoor route to sneaking in mitigation obligations. Questions remain about how much policy autonomy countries have. Can they determine their own ‘climate resilient’ agricultural futures or resist interventions proposed by funders? It is clear that some countries are better able to protect or project their interests than others. This often depends on economic might and levels of aid dependence.

Third, the research shows that the lack – so far – of coherent policy frameworks balancing priorities across sectors has left considerable space for powerful actors to shape the way in which countries are responding to challenges and opportunities, and how they manage policy conflicts and trade-offs.

In Malawi, strategies such as conservation agriculture, drought resistant varieties and hybrid seeds and agroforestry are being promoted by particular players – NGOs and donors – in support of ‘climate smart agriculture’. Yet the state clearly also has a strong political commitment to the maize subsidy programme, which runs up against goals of crop diversification to assist adaptation

Finally, across the four countries a common finding is that so far policies and strategies on climate change and agriculture have been developed largely independent of agriculture sector policies, with stronger linkages to environment and development policies.

Critically, there are also questions about the sustainability of the pathways being pursued, particularly about their sensitivity to, and ability to address, what is often referred to as the food-water-energy nexus. This forces us to think seriously about the input side of agriculture in terms of energy and water and how climate change might affect these. Or how future demand for food and visions for agricultural development will affect and compete with choices of energy and water pathways. This is one of the rationales for conservation agriculture and water conservation in Kenya, for example.

The increased risk of climate change to agriculture makes it imperative that such trade-offs and policy conflicts are made explicit and addressed, so that goals on ‘climate smart agriculture’ can be achieved to benefit the most vulnerable.

Window of opportunity

While there is broad agreement that the increased focus on climate change and agriculture provides important opportunities, the case studies suggest that it is too early to say whether these opportunities translate into benefits for the poorest and most vulnerable groups and how this should happen in practice.

The failure of the discussions on agriculture in Doha could be used as an opening to better understand what is at stake, and under what conditions concepts such as ‘climate smart agriculture’ could improve the lives of poor and vulnerable farmers.

This is a summary of a forthcoming FAC briefing paper and four case studies (two published, two forthcoming). See the FAC Climate Change theme pages for more information.

Lars Otto Naess is Research Fellow at IDS and co-ordinator of the Climate Change Theme of the Future Agricultures Consortium.

Peter Newell is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.

This article first appeared on the Institute of Development Studies website.