from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Raising the Profile of Climate-Smart Agriculture

A woman picks vegetables from her garden as her daughter looks on in a village east of Maseru, Lesotho, on February 27, 2015.

October 28, 2015

A woman picks vegetables from her garden as her daughter looks on in a village east of Maseru, Lesotho, on February 27, 2015.
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The following is a guest post by Caroline Andridge, research associate for global health, economics, and development at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Controversial President Robert Mugabe isn’t the only unpredictable force citizens of Zimbabwe face. Over 1.5 million additional people in Zimbabwe (above the 4.8 million undernourished citizens in 2013) will go hungry this year because extreme weather and poor farming methods halved maize production. This is just one sad example of climate change’s growing impact on human health.

“Climate-smart” practices, like crop rotation and efficient food storage, can help address such shortages but current efforts are disjointed and inadequately financed. Yet their potential contributions will only increase as climate change’s impact becomes more severe. Climate-smart agriculture is barely on the periphery of the UN climate summit to be held in Paris later this year. It should instead be a central theme.

Emissions from agriculture are substantial. Nearly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from land use; over 85 percent of those emissions stem from agricultural production. Yet, only twenty-eight of the 127 national adaptation plans—which will drive the summit conversation—mention climate-smart agriculture by name.

These peripheral mentions suggest the potential contributions from climate-smart agriculture will be lost in the Paris discussion. Instead, we are likely to see a familiar litany of proposals that do little to help those suffering from climate change today and require difficult tradeoffs between improving the standard of living for today’s population and ensuring there is a planet for future generations.

Climate-smart agriculture sustainably increases productivity and resilience, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and advances food security and development goals. Many farmers in developing countries have begun experimenting with these practices, but lack resources to scale up projects. The Paris summit is the first UN climate meeting to prioritize bottom-up efforts through national adaptation plans; prioritizing climate-smart agriculture in Paris will draw needed attention to these similarly local initiatives.

Although climate-smart practices are implemented locally, international coordination to rally resources and coordinate expertise will bolster success. The UN’s top climate official claims current national plans do not cut emissions enough to achieve international mitigation goals. Paying increased attention to the agricultural sector may go a long way to address this shortcoming and save lives.

Climate-smart agriculture has two unique strengths. First, it promotes production systems that mitigate harmful emissions and adapt to the changing environment—both today and for the future.

Current plans to address climate change focus on reducing emissions over future decades, but this does little to assist the many people experiencing real effects of climate change now. Unexpected dry conditions shortened Ethiopia’s rainy season and lowered crop production, putting 4.5 million people in need of food aid. More efficient food storage and water-saving techniques may have eased this burden. Climate-smart practices increase land-use efficiency today and also make smarter use of resources to decrease future agricultural emissions. For example, reducing unnecessary fertilizer use (a large emitter) conserves it for more crops and minimizes greenhouse gases.

This is particularly important for low-income country economies. Nearly forty percent of the labor force in low- and middle-income countries is employed in agriculture, compared to only 3.5 percent in high-income countries. The group Agriculture for Impact estimates that sub-Saharan Africa will suffer $68 billion in economic loss from land degradation per year.

That diminished productivity has health consequences too. The severe burden of malnutrition in developing countries is exacerbated by variable precipitation, rising temperatures, soil salinization, and desertification, all worsened by climate change. This burden will only increase if low diet diversity and poor crop yields are not addressed. Investment in climate-smart agriculture allows local farmers to fill these shortages now.

Climate-smart agriculture can help developing countries maintain agricultural productivity and increase production of foods that boost nutrition. Examples include the hugely successful SRI-Rice system, a yield-increasing methodology for rice farming that dramatically reduces necessary inputs like seeds and water, cuts costs to farmers, and increases rice yields by half. Small-scale farmers in over fifty countries have successfully adopted this system. Projects in Namibia, Micronesia, and Zambia that train farming communities in food preservation, micro-gardening, and agroforestry have also shown success in boosting nutrition through climate-smart practices.

Second, climate-smart agriculture does not require universal participation for positive results. These practices outwit the challenge of collective action by providing local benefits. Tangible increases in crop production and household income incentivize nations to implement climate-smart practices, regardless of commitments made by other nations. These actions, in turn, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from land use.

There is already some international momentum for climate-smart initiatives. Recent support for these activities—notably from the United States and many low-income countries—suggests an increased focus would be embraced in Paris. In addition, climate-smart agriculture is one of the World Bank’s five steps to mitigate climate change and is promoted by multiple global and regional alliances.

These initiatives, however, lack funds. The UN Green Climate Fund has received barely half of the promised contributions from participating countries; the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture does not finance projects. In 2014, only 0.01 percent of U.S. official development assistance was directed toward the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Global Climate Change Initiative (GCCI); even less was directed toward GCCI programs that may include climate-smart practices.

Climate-smart agriculture projects have also been disjointed, leading to inefficient allocation of resources. USAID and similar development organizations support several ongoing projects in developing countries, while some national governments also attempt to initiate climate-smart projects unilaterally. Flexibility is beneficial, but increased resources and unified expertise will allow specialists to share best practices and improve implementation. Improving cohesion in climate-smart agriculture should be a priority in Paris. Countries should begin by raising the issue’s profile and seeking partnerships with the private sector to invest in climate-smart agriculture.

As the effects of climate change increasingly create challenges for food security, we can’t afford to ignore this potential game-changer. Simply put, climate-smart agriculture is a rare win for both development and the environment.

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