Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook

Introducing Climate-Smart Agriculture


Climate-smart agriculture implementation in agricultural production systems and food systems

Climate-smart crop production

For each crop system, there are countless climate change adaptation and mitigation options that can sustainably improve yields and minimize the harmful environmental impacts of production. They will differ for each farming household, depending on its coping and adaptive mechanisms. Management practices and technologies for climate change adaptation and mitigation include practices with an explicit focus on adaptation and practices with a broader scope on reducing production risks and reducing emissions. Specific climate-smart approaches to crop production include:

  • increasing diversity and complexity within the agricultural ecosystem, which can be done in many ways (e.g. expanding the diversity of crops or crop varieties), at many spatial scales (e.g. landscape level, within farms, and/or within the same crop) and over different timeframes;
  • improving sustainable soil and land management (e.g. carefully channelling the expansion of crop and grazing land to mitigate the loss of carbon storage that results from land-use change); 
  • increasing energy use efficiency;
  • promoting sustainable mechanization (e.g. increasing the availability of suitable machinery in combination with proper agronomic management to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from various farm and processing operations); and
  • developing simple and robust scientific tools to guide the decision-making of farmers on a seasonal and long-term basis.

Climate-smart livestock production

Livestock are an important resource for both developing and industrialized societies. They provide multiple benefits including food, clothing, fuel, draught power, income and employment. They also contribute to nutrient cycling in the soil, and can represent a type of insurance for small-scale producers in developing countries that can safeguard food and income in the event of climate- and weather-associated crises. Livestock production systems are also significant in that they occupy almost one-third of the global ice-free terrestrial land surface, and utilize around 60 percent of the global biomass harvest. Over the coming decades, climate change will affect the natural resource base on which livestock production depends. In many regions, livestock production systems represent the only viable system of food production, and enable communities to inhabit, and prosper in, arid and semi-arid regions. Many of the world’s poorest people rely on livestock production for their survival. Climate change presents a range of challenges for livestock producers. Livestock production will be directly affected by changes in temperature and water availability. Climate change will also affect livestock production through it impacts on the supply and quality of pasture and forage crops, the production and prices of feed grains, and modifications in the distribution ranges of livestock diseases and pests. Livestock is also responsible for 14.5 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Although associated with relatively high greenhouse gas emissions, livestock can reduce the vulnerability to climate change risks for millions of poor livestock keepers. Livestock production systems accounts for up to half of the technical mitigation potential of the AFOLU sectors. This potential can be realized through management options that sustainably intensify livestock production, promote carbon sequestration in rangelands and reduce emissions from manure. A reduction in consumer demand for livestock products can also contribute to climate change mitigation.

Climate-smart fisheries and aquaculture

The fisheries and aquaculture sector is where climate change is expected to have some of the greatest impacts on productivity and livelihoods. Climate-smart agriculture interventions for this sector has focused on adaptation strategies, especially for the most vulnerable populations in small island developing states and coastal communities. In this sector, the major impacts of climate change include severe weather events, increased flooding in coastal and riparian zones, sea level rise, shifts in the distribution range of important species and ocean acidification. The fisheries and aquaculture sector also has the capacity for increasing carbon removal from the atmosphere through farming of seaweeds and improved coastal management (e.g. the protection and management of mangrove forests and estuaries). Healthy ecosystems and sustainable use of fisheries and aquaculture resources are the foundation of climate change adaptation and mitigation for the fisheries and aquaculture sector. The ecosystem approach to fisheries and aquaculture provides the needed framework to holistically address climate change across marine and coastal ecosystems. Climate-smart agricultural strategies that capture fisheries can adopt to lower emissions include reducing fuel use in the global fishing fleet, reducing overcapacity and reducing the carbon imprint of the international trade in fish and fisheries products, which are the most highly traded food commodity.

Integrated production systems

Integrated production systems use some of the products, by-products or services of one production component as inputs for another production component within a single farming operation. In integrated systems, the production components are mutually supportive and mutually dependent. Integrated production systems include agroforestry, crop-livestock, rice-fish, fish-livestock and food-energy systems, as well as less widespread systems, such as aquaponics. By optimizing efficiency in the use of resources, integrated production systems can achieve the synergistic objectives of climate-smart agriculture. The high efficiency in recycling resources (e.g. converting waste into biogas) creates a system with minimum environmental impact and lowers operating costs, as there is less need for inputs (e.g. fertilizer, feed and energy). The diversification of resources and incomes associated with integrated production offers farmers a greater number of risk management strategies and options to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Moreover, the emissions intensities of integrated systems are typically lower than those of specialized systems. However, successful integration rests on the flexibility to reduce trade-offs and competition between the various production components of the agricultural system, which demands substantial technical knowledge, labour, and sometimes upfront investments that will only pay off over a relatively long period of time. Sustainable production intensification from integrated agricultural systems requires a clearer understanding of the impacts of changes in climate and climate variability on these systems.

Water management for climate-smart agriculture

As water plays a crucial role in food production and the management of ecosystems, water management is a critical component of climate-smart agriculture strategies. The implementation of adaptation and mitigation options in water management for agriculture requires an understanding of the potential impacts climate change will have on water resources and the vulnerability of rural populations to these impacts. The agriculture sectors, which are responsible for 70 percent of total freshwater withdrawals globally, are the main users of water resources. Observed data and climate projections show that changes in water quantity and quality due to climate change are expected to compromise food security and increase the vulnerability of poor rural producers, especially in arid and semi-arid areas. The adverse impacts of climate change on freshwater resources will exacerbate the impacts of non-climatic factors, such as population growth, economic development, land-use change and urbanization. These factors are driving changes in water use at a much faster pace than climate change. Water demand will grow in the coming decades, primarily due to population growth and economic development. Changes in irrigation water demand are also expected. Climate change will also affect the design and operation of water infrastructure. Climate change adaptation options for water management will necessarily combine policies, institutions, investments, crop and water management practices and capacity development.

Sustainable soil and land management for climate-smart agriculture

The impacts of climate change will contribute to land and soil degradation and reduce the productivity of these natural resources. However, there are immense opportunities to lessen the negative impacts of climate change on land and soil resources and optimize the potentially positive effects of climate change. This can be done by implementing targeted and adapted sustainable soil and land management practices and selecting the most appropriate land-use systems for a given environment. Sustainable soil and land management encompasses options that allow different user groups to manage their resources, including water, crops, livestock and associated biodiversity, in ways that are best suited to the prevailing biophysical, socio-economic and climatic conditions. Understanding the drivers of change and their impacts (i.e. why the soil and land resources are under risk), is vital for enabling various land users to select and put in practice the most efficient, affordable and acceptable solutions. Land resource planning is an essential entry point and process to choose the most suitable land-use systems for accommodating the often competing uses of land. It can also promote the adoption of locally adapted sustainable soil and land management practices and enable decision-makers and communities to put in place more resilient land-use systems that can support climate change mitigation and adaptation. Successful implementation of sustainable soil and land management options requires an enabling environment that can help enhance technical knowledge in ways that build on modern science and local expertise, and contribute to overcoming the financial, institutional and communication barriers that hinder the wider adoption of climate-smart agriculture.

Conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources for climate-smart agriculture

Genetic resources for food and agriculture are the foundations of sustainability, resilience and adaptability in production systems. Genetic diversity ensures that aquatic species, crops, livestock breeds, forest trees and other woody plant species, micro-organisms and invertebrates can thrive or persist under a range of environmental conditions. It also allows these resources to cope with pests and diseases. More crucially, genetic diversity is a prerequisite for adaptation and continued evolution of the species, varieties and breeds. Climate change is considered as one of the main threats to genetic resources for food and agriculture, and it is expected to bring challenges to both their conservation and use. However, depending on the geographical location, climate change can also create opportunities. There is a need to enhance conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources for food and agriculture and gather more and better information on these resources. Traditional and novel uses of genetic resources can increase the adaptability, resilience and yield of production systems and enhance their contribution to climate change mitigation. It is necessary to raise awareness about the important role genetic resources play in climate change adaptation and mitigation, and strengthen national capacities to sustainably manage their genetic resources.

Management of energy in the context of climate-smart agriculture

Energy is needed for every stage in the food chain, but can also be produced from food chains. The linkages between energy and food production have changed and grown stronger over time. The current use of energy in food systems remains however unsustainable. The food sector currently accounts for around 30 percent of the world’s total end-use energy consumption, and more than 70 percent of the energy used in food chains is consumed beyond the production stage. Most of this energy coming from fossil fuels, the energy used in food chains accounts for more than one-third of the total emissions from food chains. To address the challenges of climate change, the development of food chains can no longer rely on such a high level of dependency on fossil fuels. This requires to scale up energy-smart food chains, relying on adequate access to modern energy services through (i) improved energy efficiency, (ii) increased use and production of renewable energy, (ii) sustainable bioenergy, and (iv) a water-energy-food nexus approach that connects the use and consumption of water, energy and food.

Developing sustainable food systems and value chains for climate-smart agriculture

Climate-smart agriculture approach are required in the entire value chain from production to consumption. It is important to take a holistic, systems view of climate impacts and vulnerabilities to identify climate-smart interventions to adapt to and mitigate climate change, where possible, to work towards sustainable food systems. FAO’s sustainable food value chain development (SFVCD) approach uses systems thinking to identify leverage points for proactive interventions that will have sustainable positive impacts, including greening the value chain for climate-smart agriculture. The SFVCD approach involves an analysis of three interconnected levels: the core value chain (i.e. the stages from production to disposal), the extended value chain including support services, and the enabling environment – both societal and natural elements. By analysing the diverse actors and their interlinked value-adding activities from ‘farm to fork’, including the production, aggregation, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal of products that originate from agriculture, forestry or fisheries, and the environments in which they are embedded, it is possible to identify interventions at all levels for sustainable value chains and food systems. Interventions for climate adaptation and mitigation to “green” value chains at all levels - both core and extended, and to improve the enabling environment for sustainable and green value chains include investments in infrastructure (e.g. storage, roads) and packaging; efforts to reduce food loss and waste; optimising energy and input usage; implementing policies; and generating knowledge for all actors to influence behaviour change in the value chain and food systems (e.g., reducing consumption and improving extension services).