Climate smart agriculture: Unlocking the puzzle

3rd December 2015

Jules Siedenburg critically discusses Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) approaches, highlighting both the potential prospects and challenges in achieving the ‘triple wins’.

Blog post - Climate-smart Kenya - Cecilia Schubert - Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0

Climate-smart Kenya (Credit: C. Scubert, CCAFS, CC BY-NC 2.0)
The ongoing Climate Change Conference in Paris is focusing on an incredibly diverse range of issues that aim to respond to current and future climate impacts. Agriculture and food security will be amongst these issues. Agriculture is the lead sector in many developing countries, often employing a majority of the population. It also has profound linkages to other key sectors such as water, forestry, energy, health and the environment.

Despite its importance, farming is already in trouble in many countries and faces looming threats. Notably, small-scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia make up a majority of the 1 billion food insecure people in the world. These communities also tend to be highly vulnerable to climate change and in many places its impacts have become palpable in recent years, including increasingly variable rainfall and more frequent and dramatic droughts, flooding and cyclones. Consequences for farming communities can include reduced crop and livestock productivity, and sometimes crop failures and livestock mortality. Such impacts are predicted to increase over time due to climate change.

How agricultural production copes with climate change and how farming practices respond to it are therefore critical questions. ‘Climate smart agriculture’ (CSA) offers potential answers. 

Introductory guide to CSA  

I have developed a guide on CSA examining the concept further and providing links to further useful research. What I note is that CSA has emerged as a family of agricultural technologies that aim to deliver on both core farming objectives and climate change objectives. Specifically, these technologies promise synergistic ‘triple win’ outcomes, as demonstrated in myriad case studies of local successes, some of which is highlighted in the identified key readings. This ‘triple win’ includes:

  1. sustainably increasing agricultural productivity or incomes
  2. building resilience to climate change impacts (i.e. climate adaptation), and 
  3. combating climate change (i.e. climate change mitigation). 

Drilling down to its essence, in many areas CSA technologies can offer an opportunity to double overall farm production despite climate change. Many of these results have been achieved by projects that fostered farmer adoption of practices which rehabilitated degraded lands while harnessing synergies between crops, livestock and farm trees.

Winners and losers? 

CSA seems to hold amazing potential, yet this has not been realised to date, beyond numerous yet typically isolated case studies. Simply put, CSA technologies have generally failed to disseminate spontaneously, raising questions as to why. This state of affairs constitutes a conundrum, especially since these technologies tend to emphasise readily accessible inputs, notably innovative ways of managing local natural resources. The literature cites numerous barriers to farmer adoption of these technologies, yet still this state of affairs remains unsatisfactory and troubling.

Despite offering win-win outcomes that would seem to make everyone a winner, things are rarely this simple. On the one hand, changes most always involve winners and losers, so being lucid about this and managing it intelligently is one major challenge. Another involves addressing the criticisms of CSA sceptics, whose concerns merit careful consideration. Such caveats notwithstanding, CSA offers prospects of a brighter future for communities and countries in need of hope, making this an exciting and rewarding field, one richly deserving ongoing efforts by researchers, practitioners and farmers to unlock its full potential.

SDGs and COP21 agendas

As we move towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is worth considering how CSA links to this global agenda and why it matters. The broad aim of the SDGs is to work within our environment limits and still achieve economic and social development across all countries, both rich and poor. CSA is significant across multiple goals: from SDG 2, which strives to end hunger and promote sustainable agriculture, to SDG 15 which aims to protect and restore sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems.

At COP21, organisations, practitioners, researchers and policy advisors/makers will attend discussions and meetings to critically examine CSA, promote ideas and share practical experiences. A lot of learning will emerge over the next 10 days. The road ahead for CSA is exciting, with intelligent discussions to be had about the challenges that it also presents.

You can find the Climate Smart Agriculture Key Issues Guide here:

For more reading on CSA issues, you can visit the Eldis Agriculture and Food thematic section