Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook

Introducing Climate-Smart Agriculture


CSA in the broader development agenda

Climate smart agriculture is a new approach for charting a pathway to develop agricultural systems that promote sustainability, strengthen food security and combat climate change. Climate-smart agriculture shares the guiding principles of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the SDGs and the objectives of the green economy. Climate-smart agriculture is fully aligned with the five principles of the FAO vision for sustainable food and agriculture, which was developed as part of the Organization's contribution to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (FAO, 2014a; FAO, 2016b). This section aims at clarifying how climate-smart agriculture positions itself in the broader development agenda and how it relates to other concepts and approaches.

A1-5.1 The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals

As indicated earlier, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 SDGs will serve to guide national development plans over the next 15 years. The agriculture sectors lie at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDGs, which were agreed on by United Nations member states, constitute a complex set of priorities, and associated means of implementation. They are broken down in 169 concrete targets that will be measured through a set of indicators. Poverty and hunger remain top priorities for the agenda. The stated goal now is the complete eradication of hunger and poverty, which represents a significantly more ambitious aspiration than the earlier Millennium Development Goal, which was to halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. SDG2, 'End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture', makes it clear how important the promotion of sustainable agriculture, rural development, and the sustainable use and management of natural resources is to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. SDG Target 2.3 gives special attention to the role and needs of small-scale food producers, as a priority target group for intervention. The rights of small-scale producers, women, indigenous peoples and youth to have access to resources are reflected throughout the entire 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. SDG Target 2.4 calls for more sustainable food systems; the implementation of resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production; and the responsible management and use of resources to maintain ecosystems, strengthen capacities to adapt to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters, and progressively improve land and soil quality. 

To support global efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, FAO (2014a) has developed a common vision and approach for sustainable food and agriculture (SFA). Building on extensive work that promotes sustainability in various production systems, the approach identifies five principles that balance the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable food and agriculture, and provide the basis for developing policies, strategies, regulations and incentives that are in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (see Box A1.2).

Box A1.2 Five principles for sustainable food and agriculture (FAO, 2014a)

  1. Improving efficiency in the use of resources – This includes the use of natural resources, energy external inputs, and labour. Modifying current practices can do much to improve the productivity of many food and agricultural production systems.
  2. Direct action to conserve, protect and enhance natural resources – Food and agricultural production depends on natural resources and therefore the sustainability of production depends on the sustainability of the resources themselves. Much can be done to reduce negative impacts and enhance the status of natural resources.
  3. Protect rural livelihoods and improve equity and social well-being - Ensuring that producers have adequate access to and control of productive resources, and addressing the gender gap, can contribute significantly to reducing poverty and food insecurity in rural areas.
  4. Enhance the resilience of people, communities and ecosystems, especially to climate change and market volatility - Extreme weather events, market volatility and civil strife impair the stability of agriculture. Policies, technologies and practices that build producers’ resilience to threats would also contribute to sustainability.
  5. Responsible and effective governance is essential for the sustainability of both the natural and human systems - This includes policies and strategies that are consistent across sectors, alignment of legal frameworks and investments, and strengthening of capacities of institutions and relevant stakeholders at all levels. It is based on stakeholder dialogue, partnerships, and the application of mechanisms aimed at building consensus around sustainable development objectives.

Climate-smart agriculture is an integral part of the sustainable food and agriculture approach. It shares its principles, and seeks to promote sustainable agriculture through the three dimensions of sustainability, with specific focus on climate. For this reason, climate-smart agriculture has also been considered a key element in achieving many of the SDGs. 

The 17 SDG goals are complex, multidimensional and closely interlinked. By design, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls upon member states and their partners to explore the linkages across goals and targets, develop synergies and address the trade-offs that arise from them. Consequently, climate-smart agriculture has the potential to not only help achieve SDG2, but many of the other SDGs as well, including:

  • SDG1 'End poverty in all its forms everywhere';
  • SDG6 'Ensure access to water and sanitation for all';
  • SDG 8 'Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all';
  • SDG12 'Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns';
  • SDG13 'Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts';
  • SDG14 'Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources'; and
  • SDG15 'Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss'

There is ample evidence from local initiatives and experiences demonstrating how climate-smart agriculture is empowering households and communities to directly and concretely realize the SDGs. Climate-smart agriculture, which is guided by the need for more resource efficiency and resilience, brings together global and local concerns in addressing climate change adaptation, mitigation and at the same time achieving food security. To do so it brings together practices, policies and institutions, which are not necessarily new. What is new in climate-smart agriculture is the acknowledgement that agriculture needs to address multiple challenges. This requires dialogue, and a harmonization and synchronization of practices and policies that focus on avoiding contradictory and conflicting actions by managing trade-offs and synergies in the pursuit of multiple objectives.

A1-5.2 Links between climate-smart agriculture and other initiatives and concepts

A1-5.2.1 Green Economy 

In its Green Economy Report, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defined the green economy as “An economy that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities” (UNEP, 2010). A green economy is one whose growth in income and employment is driven by investments that simultaneously reduce carbon emissions and pollution; enhance efficiency in the use of energy and natural resources; and prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Green economy objectives are clearly aligned with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. As stated in the outcome document of the Rio + 20 conference the “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication will enhance our ability to manage natural resources sustainably and with lower negative environmental impacts, increase resource efficiency, and reduce waste.” (United Nations, 2012).

Agriculture plays an essential role in moving towards a green economy. There can be no green economy without a ‘greener’ agriculture. This is why FAO proposed 'Greening Economy with Agriculture' as the basis key message for Rio+20 (FAO, 2012). Associated with the green economy is the concept of green growth. Originating in the Asia and Pacific Region in 2005, green growth initiatives focus on efforts to harmonize economic growth with environmental sustainability and enhance the synergies between environment and economy. The green growth concept has been used by the ministry of environment of several countries to promote better integration between economic and environmental goals. 

By explicitly addressing issues of productivity and income, resilience and mitigation, climate-smart agriculture offers a concrete way to move towards a greener economy. It makes sustainable development tangible by focusing on issues that can and must be addressed in local communities but that have global, long-term consequences.

A1-5.2.2 Sustainable Intensification

Sustainable intensification is an important component of strategies to achieve sustainable food and agriculture. It is predicated on the acknowledgement that many countries must increase agricultural production and productivity in a much more sustainable manner than earlier development models. It seeks to raise productivity, lower production costs and increase the level and stability of returns from production, while conserving natural resources, reducing the negative environmental impacts of production and enhancing ecosystem services (FAO, 2011c). The nature of sustainable intensification strategies varies across different types of agricultural systems and locations. However, one of the core principles is increasing the efficiency of resource use. Through better management of carbon and nitrogen cycles, sustainable agricultural intensification also builds greater resilience to the impacts of climate change and contributes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (Burney et al., 2010; Wollenberg et al., 2016).

Sustainable intensification and climate-smart agriculture are highly complementary. The FAO approach to sustainable crop production intensification is the 'Save and Grow' model, which promotes a productive agriculture that conserves and enhances natural resources. This model follows an ecosystem approach that draws on nature’s contribution to crop growth, such as soil organic matter, water flow regulation, pollination and natural predation of pests. It applies appropriate external inputs at the right time and in the right amount to cultivate improved crop varieties that are resilient to climate change and use nutrients, water and external inputs more efficiently. Increasing resource use efficiency, reducing the use of fossil fuels and reducing environmental degradation are key components of the Save and Grow approach. This can save money for farmers and prevent the environmental damage caused by the overuse of some inputs. This approach, which was developed for crop production, has been extended to other agriculture sectors.

Both the sustainable intensification and climate-smart agriculture also pay particular attention to analysing trade-offs of different options. In sustainable intensification approaches, this may involve the trade-offs between intensification in one part of the landscape or globe, which may increase emissions and have other impacts on land sparing or land cover change in other areas or regions. Trade-off analyses would involve understanding which practice is more beneficial for which objective and in what context; and exploring policy and market mechanisms that enhance sharing or sparing initiatives.

A1-5.2.3 Agroecology

Agroecology applies ecological concepts and principles to farming systems (HLPE, 2016). Through its focus on the interactions between plants, animals, and the environment, and the integration of the different agricultural sectors, it fosters sustainable agricultural development, which in turn ensures food security and nutrition. Agroecology goes beyond input use efficiency and input substitution. It harnesses key ecological processes, such as natural pest predation and the recycling of biomass and nutrients, to enhance the beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of agricultural biodiversity. Agroecological principles, as defined by Nicholls, Altieri and Vazquez (2016), are particularly important for climate change adaptation.

Agroecology does not promote a fixed set of farming practices or technologies. It stresses the importance of the specificity of local environmental conditions, and posits that local farming communities are be best placed for identifying functional ecological strategies to improve farming systems. Agroecology was initially focused on building knowledge on the use and value of ecosystem services in agriculture, even though the term 'ecosystem services' was not in use at that time. Agroecology is by nature climate-smart, as it contributes to the three objectives of climate-smart agriculture. Many climate smart projects are implementing practices based on agroecological principles.

A1-5.2.4 Sustainable Food Value Chains

FAO’s sustainable food value chain approach, as elaborated in the publication “Developing Sustainable Food Value Chains-Guiding Principles” (FAO 2014b), places the value chain at the heart of a system of complex environments that determines the behaviour and performance of farms and other agri-food enterprises. SFVC development requires systemic analyses at three inter-connected levels: the core value chain, the extended value chain, and the broader enabling environment. The sustainability of the value chain plays out simultaneously along three dimensions: economic, social and environmental. On the economic dimension, a value chain is considered sustainable if the activities required to be conducted by each value chain actor or support provider are commercially or fiscally viable. On the social dimension, sustainability refers to socially and culturally acceptable outcomes in terms of fair distribution of the benefits and costs associated with the increased value creation. On the environmental dimension, sustainability is determined by the ability of value chain actors to reduce and eliminate negative environmental impacts from their activities; and where possible, they should have a positive impact.

The SFVC approach provides a framework to effectively address food security challenges in the context of climate change. First and foremost, its triple bottom line principle of economic, social and environmental sustainability is directly linked to three pillars of climate-smart agriculture.  In fact, there are many similarities between the two approaches. Both approaches focus on increasing productivity, profitability and incomes, as clearly stated in the first pillar of climate-smart agriculture. 

The SFVC approach upholds market-based solutions that start from market opportunities, and focuses particularly on how value is captured at end markets. Moreover, it includes a distributional principle, which implies that profits and incomes should be equitably distributed, thereby contributing to building people’s resilience to shocks and variability, which is the second pillar of climate-smart agriculture. One main difference between the two approaches, though, is that SFVC looks at broader environmental impacts (e.g. water footprint, biodiversity, toxicity) rather than only greenhouse gas emissions, as in the third pillar of climate-smart agriculture.Through its emphasis on a multi-layer approach to problem analysis, the SFVC framework can complement climate-smart agriculture to broaden the frame of analysis, expose root causes of the greenhouse gas emissions, and identify the most feasible and critical entry points to adapt to and mitigate climate change. It embraces systems thinking in that rather than looking at isolated value chain functions, such as production or processing, it aims for a holistic understanding of their interactions, feedback loops and how they together affect systems dynamics. Under the SFVC framework, often there are multiple binding constraints to improving value chain performance that do not only lie in chain itself, but also beyond the chain in outer layers such as support services and the wider enabling environment. Last but not least, the SFVC approach calls for integrated interventions along all three aforementioned levels, rather than at each level separately. A major challenge to the adoption of climate-smart agriculture at the national level is the need to overcome sectoral boundaries and enhance synergies while minimizing trade-offs between climate-related and other policy objectives. Through a multi-stakeholder process that employs systems thinking, the SFVC approach helps in moving from reactive to proactive policies, and in mobilizing expertise from different disciplines and stakeholders- both public and private, at local and national levels- in the design and implementation of climate-smart agricultu