Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook

Climate-smart crop production

Production and Resources

Creating an enabling environment and removing barriers for the adoption of climate-smart crop production

Initiatives designed to achieve sustainable growth in productivity, deliver long-term benefits in terms of improving the adaptation responses to climate change, and reduce and/or remove greenhouse gas emissions, must be planned and address the potential constraints producers face in adopting climate-smart crop production practices and technologies. Autonomous adaptation actionsxx that are not designed for future climate conditions and not informed by past experience, carry the risk of evolving into maladaptation. For example, pressure to bring marginal land into production to compensate for declining yields may increase land degradation and endanger the biodiversity of both wild and domestic species, which may jeopardize future efforts to respond to climate risk. Without consistent policy signals, autonomous efforts by farmers may have limited success, as the impacts of climate change gradually become more drastic. Since agriculture is a core private enterprise activity, the costs of the harmful impacts of climate change will be borne directly by farmers. 

Policy responses to mainstream climate change into all agriculture sectors are dealt with in module C3. The relationship between the policy environment required to support climate-smart agricultural development and a system-wide approach for capacity enhancement is addressed in module C1. This chapter deals with specific considerations for policy makers and development practitioners on whether, how and in which crop production priorities to invest for climate change adaptation and/or mitigation purposes (Chapter B1-4.1).

The transition towards climate-smart crop production is easier to achieve when it is market-driven and fully integrated into markets. Food markets often function poorly or very locally. Adaptation and mitigation actions also need to develop local, regional, national and international markets for crops that play functional roles in crop rotation. Success in this area will depend on innovations in market institutions, improvements in the physical infrastructure (e.g. roads, irrigation schemes, facilities for bulking, processing and storage, and information and communication systems) needed to facilitate access to markets, and investments in rural areas. 

In addition to infrastructure, seed laws, policies and registration processes related to the release, multiplication, distribution, quality control and sale of seeds are important for climate-smart crop production. These policies and regulations, which govern national and, increasingly, regional crop varietal development, establish the vitally important enabling environment that can ensure farmers have timely access to reasonably priced quality seeds and planting materials of the most suitable crop varieties. The harmonization of seed regulatory frameworks at the subregional and regional levels is particularly important for coping with local seed shortages. Harmonization eases administrative bottlenecks in cross-border seed trade and facilitates seed exchange among countries. At the same time, the establishment of procedures for the release of regional varieties and crop variety catalogues increases the options available to farmers (Chapter B1-3).

For climate-smart crop production practices and technologies whose adoption is determined by investments, decision-makers working on potential policies and incentives must pay careful attention to the overall economic, social and environmental context. Emphasis should be, for example, on providing financial incentives to enhance farmers' capacities or increase their access to soft loans to support initial investments in sustainable practices and technologies. One way to achieve this is to develop financial strategies that can enable farmers, especially smallholders with limited purchasing power, and streamline them into existing institutions. This can help farmers to take advantage of measures that are socially and environmentally beneficial but have high upfront costs. At the same time, incentives that support unsustainable production systems and exacerbate climate change need to be removed. A major disincentive for farmers to invest in the climate-smart management of productive resources is uncertainty regarding their rights to land and natural resources. It is particularly difficult for smallholder farmers without formal land title deeds to obtain credit for activities that can diversify their income. They remain trapped in a vicious circle of 'lows': poverty, low education levels, limited technical knowledge, limited access to production inputs, low productivity and quality levels, limited market integration and low value addition. To be effective, tenure rights need to recognized and granted legitimacy. This requires well functioning institutions for administering land tenure. These institutions are dealt with in more detail in module C1.

Many climate-smart crop production practices generate co-benefits that require time to manifest themselves. Because of this, effective risk management strategies need to include social protection mechanisms for the rural poor, especially for vulnerable groups, such as women and youth. Social protection and decent rural employment are addressed in module C7.

Prioritizing investments is not always easy because different crops and crop production systems have their advantages and disadvantages, and the trade-offs that need to be made may be hard to quantify economically and environmentally. For example, dietary changes are extremely important for climate-smart food system, as some foods have higher embodied greenhouse gas emissions or require considerably more resources per calorie or nutrient value to produce than others. Making food systems more carbon-friendly and greener is a priority, especially at the local level (Hilmi, 2016a, 2016b). In a global food system, in which there is a growing dependency on international trade, food production and consumption are often spatially disconnected. This makes it difficult to estimate the proportion of greenhouse gas emissions related to crop production; assess the environmental, social, economic and health benefits of local food compared to non-local food; and guide the evolution of food systems. Making decisions in this area requires giving weight to community relationships and producers’ economic benefit as well as to the potential environmental and health benefits. Even if a representative accounting of all variables was possible, the current understanding of the composition of a healthy diet still remains a controversial area of science. Any advice or guideline on consumption patterns would be only based on partial information (Weber et al., 2008; Fader et al., 2013). Policies and incentives for climate-smart crop production practices related to nutrient management also require a sound understanding of potential trade-offs. For example, subsidies for fertilizer inputs may encourage farmers to improve nutrient-deficient soils and decrease yield gaps. However, they may also discourage the use of recycled materials (e.g. composted residues and organic wastes) due to their associated labour costs. Such subsidies may also suppress innovations in nutrient cycling methods or technologies that make use of agricultural by-products (e.g. animal excreta and crop residues) and human waste (e.g. wastewater, sewage materials and food waste). 

Trade-offs may also need to be made regarding mitigation objectives and how to reach them. For example, one mitigation option countries could pursue is to encourage farmers to phase out the spreading of manure onto the land in favour of treatment or direct incorporation into the soil. This would reduce emissions of ammonia, which is considered a secondary greenhouse gas due to its potential contribution to nitrous oxide production when it is deposited on soils and reenters the soil nitrogen cycle. Ammonia is also a source of atmospheric pollution. However, while such changes would reduce ammonia emissions, it could also generate methane emissions from the anaerobic digestion of manure, or nitrous oxide emissions from the denitrification of nitrogen incorporated into the soil (Olivier et al., 2002).

Recognizing the complexity inherent in developing climate-smart agricultural strategies, this chapter has identified the major necessary components for the establishment of sustainable and climate-smart crop production systems. A comprehensive account of the elements for the implementation of a climate-smart agriculture strategy at the country-level is provided in module C10.

B1-4.1 Integrated research priorities

Coping with future challenges related to climate requires more investment in research, specifically action research. It is essential to build the evidence base for climate-smart interventions and technologies; tailor the strategies that have proven to be effective to increase their applicability in specific locations; and accelerate the development and adoption of new promising technologies and practices.

Most research and modelling work on crops is directed to cereals, particularly maize, wheat and rice, and legumes, such as groundnut and soybean. However, maintaining the health of agricultural ecosystems under different climatic circumstances will require diversifying crop production and including lesser-known annual and perennial crops into crop rotations. Expanding the scope of crop research to include alternative edible species would increase the adaptation options available for farmers (Glover et al., 2010). Developing new varieties of edible plant species and commercially sustainable perennial grain crops that are resistant to drought, flooding, salinity, pests and diseases will involve the preservation of multiple varieties, land races, rare breeds and closely related wild relatives of domesticated species to maintain a genetic bank for use in the selection of novel traits.

Other research priorities in climate-smart crop production include the investigation of methods for adapting farming practices and technologies to site-specific conditions and needs. The adoption of climate-smart technologies is not determined simply though straightforward assessments of the fitness and resilience of a single crop to the specific context. The suitability of any intervention requires integrated scientific investigations to appraise the constraints that make it difficult for farmers to adopt climate-smart crop production system. It is necessary to devise, test and validate climate-smart cropping systems (e.g. planting and termination dates, seed rate, crops sequencing), and farmers must be involved in the identification of obstacles to adoption and the formulation of strategies to overcome them. However, in many countries, research institutions for crops, soil and water are hosted in separate entities and have different priorities. This fragmentation of research efforts is a major constraint for the efficient and integrated management of crops, soil, water and nutrients, and ultimately hinders the transition to climate-smart agriculture. Promoting and supporting integrated research produces important public goods. 

The communication of research outputs must be made more 'policy friendly'. Researchers need to provide clear 'take home message' for policy makers and development practitioners and give them the instruments they require to prioritize potential policies and strategies. To foster the uptake of research by producers and ensure that research priorities are shaped by experiences on the ground, an agricultural innovation systems approach is recommended and is described in Chapter B1-4.2).

B1-4.2 Capacity development for climate-smart crop production

Developing and applying locally specific and effective climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies for crop production requires the strengthening of scientific and technical capacities at many levels, including the individual and organizational levels, in ways that create an enabling environment for change. Capacity development must be multidisciplinary and include all groups that have a stake in making crop production climate-smart. Key stakeholders include national researchers, policy makers, extension agents, farmers and the private sector, particularly small-and-medium size enterprises. It is not only people new to farming and agriculture-related businesses that need support in obtaining skills and knowledge. The capacities of policy makers, extension agents, agricultural entrepreneurs and farmers need to be enhanced and updated on a consistent basis. This demands strengthening organizational and institutional capacities, such as coordination mechanisms. A system-wide capacity development approach (discussed in module C1) is recommended because climate-smart crop production is knowledge-intensive and both highly location-specific and deeply intertwined with global dynamics. 

For farmers in particular, gaining and sharing knowledge about changing climatic conditions and the sustained viability of adapted crop production practices are important when formulating strategies to cope with the limiting factors affecting their crop system; better allocate the resources they have at their disposal and those they can mobilize; and make reasoned investments in climate change adaptation and/or mitigation. Understanding the processes farmers go through when making decisions about adopting new practices and technologies is very important. This is only possible at the local level and requires a solid knowledge of how farmers manage change. In this respect, pluralistic and demand-driven extension services play a pivotal role in facilitating practical changes in climate-smart crop production. These services provide access to and the sharing of good practices and technologies, and enhance farmers' capacities to implement them. They also help to reduce the perceived, and sometimes real, risks of failure that a shift to a new system and new ways of doing business carries. For example, Farmer Field School programmes, which provide local platforms for collaboration among farmers, extension agents and researchers, can serve to develop locally adapted strategies for climate change adaptation. These programmes often combine capacity development at the local level with actions linked to the broader policy framework and governance. In many countries, public extension services have deteriorated. They have been replaced in part by messages directly sent from various entities (e.g. research institutions, government ministries, farmers organization) by cell phone, the internet, radio and television. The role of private input suppliers and service providers (e.g. throughout-grower schemes) has also increased. As a result, many farmers, particular women farmers, do not have access to any form of extension services. Module C2 addresses extension services in detail. The needs of women farmers must not be neglected in view of their significant role as food producers in many countries. This subject is addressed in module C6.

Increasing local capacities to select and evaluate crop varieties is critical for ensuring that locally appropriate varieties are available to farmers. This requires the creation of platforms (see module C1 on Multi-Stakeholder Platforms) for community-level, participatory variety breeding and evaluation. FAO has developed a multimodule toolkit for supporting capacity building along the entire seed value chain, including production, processing and quality assurance, and marketing by small- and medium-scale enterprises.

The development of capacities of the private sector in manufacturing, providing services and the marketing of agricultural machinery can also support the adoption of climate-smart crop production practices.  In most developing countries, the lack of availability of locally manufactured agricultural machinery and spare parts, and the absence of local repair and maintenance services are important obstacles to sustainable mechanizationxxi and contribute to inefficiencies in crop production.