Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook

Developing Sustainable Food Systems and Value Chains for Climate-Smart Agriculture

Production and Resources

Climate-smart interventions

At each level of the food system, there are opportunities to adapt to the impacts of climate change and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. All stages of the food value chain will likely be affected by extreme climate events associated with climate change and the slow onset impacts of climate change. This requires taking adaptive measures in both the short term and long term. For example, sea level change from climate change over time may affect ports (Antle and Capalbo, 2010), and extreme weather events could damage both roads and other facilities used throughout the post-production stages of food value chains. Very little attention has been paid to ensuring that post-harvest storage and processing facilities, and transport networks are climate-resilient (Antle and Capalbo, 2010; Bendito and Twomlow, 2015). The development of sustainable food systems will only result from using a systems analysis at all levels to design impactful interventions. Climate vulnerability 'hot spots' may lie beyond the core value chain in the extended value chain, or may be linked to the enabling environment (Reardon and Zilberman, 2017). It is critical to examine the entire system to identify hotspots and the key leverage points to implement interventions that will have the greatest impact. 

The objectives of climate-smart agriculture – to sustainably increase agricultural productivity and incomes; adapt and build resilience to climate change; and reduce or remove greenhouse gases, where possible – reflect the greater goals of FAO strategic work for sustainable food and agriculture, and can be addressed using a food systems approach. Mitigation may be considered a secondary goal of climate-smart agriculture, after adaptation strategies (Lipper, 2014). However, mitigation remains an important goal, particularly as climate change acts as a negative feedback loop that exacerbates climate risks for those who are already most vulnerable (IPCC, 2007; Foresight, 2011). For example, poorer livestock herders are more likely to suffer the impacts of livestock mortality due to more frequent drought events (Vermeulen et al., 2012). 

Table B10.1 presents a non-exhaustive list of possible interventions to adapt to the impacts of climate change and mitigate emissions at all levels of the food system. Many climate-smart agriculture interventions cannot be easily categorized as specifically targeting adaptation or mitigation, as these interventions often result in 'win-win' situations that realize both objectives. For example, conservation agriculture enhances soil water retention and increases soil organic matter, which can improve resilience to drought and extreme weather events, as well as soil carbon sequestration. Therefore, conservation agriculture can play a role in both adaptation and mitigation strategies for agricultural production. Interventions in the value chain or in a food system are either directly or indirectly related to elements in the enabling environment, so there is often a clear linkage between these levels. There are some areas of intervention that apply to multiple stages of food value chains and multiple levels of the food system, including reducing food loss and waste and increasing efficiency in the use of resources. 

Food loss and waste reduction

Food loss and waste not only squanders the resources used in agricultural production across food value chains, such as inputs like irrigation water, fertilizers, time and energy, it also represents a major source of greenhouse gases. According to the European Commission’s Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research, the total carbon footprint of food loss and waste is around 4.4 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, or about 8 percent of the total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (EC, 2012; FAO, 2015). If food loss and waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world, just after China and the USA (WRI, 2012; FAO, 2015). In high-income regions, food loss and waste tends to be higher in downstream stages of food value chains, primarily the consumption stage. In lower-income regions, food loss and waste primarily occurs in upstream stages, such as post-harvest handling, aggregation and storage, and is mostly due to financial and structural barriers in harvesting techniques, storage and transportation (FAO, 2013a; Parfitt et al., 2010). It is imperative that strategies are designed for the prevention and reduction of food loss and waste at each stage of the value chain to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of food systems, decrease vulnerability to climate impacts (e.g. relocating storage facilities that are vulnerable to extreme climate events), and to improve food security.

Efficient use of resources

Along with food loss and waste, the efficient use of resources (e.g. fertilizers, water, and energy, food and system waste) is a cross-cutting issue that applies to all levels of the food system and all stages of the food value chains (See case study 10.1). At the production stage, improving efficiency in the use of inputs through sustainable intensification can deliver both adaptation and mitigation benefits (Campbell et al., 2014). For example, alternative wetting and drying for rice cultivation, which is a sustainable intensification method that reduces irrigation volumes and can result in increased yields, may potentially be part of adaption strategies for drought-prone environments (Howell et al., 2015). At the retail level, the use of refrigeration and refrigerant leakage from refrigerators and freezers has been identified as a substantial contributor to direct greenhouse gas emissions from supermarkets (Garnett, 2011; Ingram, 2011). Reducing refrigerant leakage and improving energy use in the retailing, marketing and distribution of food are examples of potential mitigation measures that can be applied in the post-harvest stages of the food value chain. 

Table B10.1. Possible interventions for climate adaptation and mitigation

Value Chain Stage




For more information, see:  Module B1 on crop production

Module B2 on livestock

Module B3 on forestry

Module B4 on fisheries and aquaculture

Module B5 on integrated production systems

  • Promote conservation agriculture and sustainable mechanization.
  • Diversify through agroforestry, intercropping or other diversification strategies.
  • Utilize improved seed varieties that are adapted to climate change (e.g.  drought-resistant, heat tolerant and flood tolerant).
  • Expand irrigation as appropriate based on water availability
  • Promote sustainable soil management practices to improve carbon storage (e.g. conservation agriculture).
  • Improve fertilizer application practices to increase fertilizer-use efficiency.
  • Divert animal waste for reuse (e.g. organic fertilizer, biogas production).
  • Improve water-use efficiency (e.g. through alternate wetting and drying in rice systems)



  • Invest in infrastructure and storage (e.g. silos)
  • Relocate to less vulnerable areas, if necessary


  • Reduce food loss and waste by investing in adequate infrastructure
  • Improve coordination within the value chain to reduce transportation distances 



  • Strengthen processing facilities to be able to withstand the potential impacts of climate change (e.g. extreme weather events, pest infestations)
  • Invest in packaging that maintains quality and safety under climate risks, such as extreme heat
  • Reduce energy use (e.g. invest in upgraded energy-efficient processing; use renewable energy sources, where possible)

Distribution and retail 

  • Improve coordination within the value chain to reduce transportation distances
  • Encourage supermarkets to take measures to minimize refrigerant leakage and reduce energy use


  • Promote local food products for perishable foods


  • Reduce food waste at home and in restaurants and catering by encouraging sustainable consumption (see Sustainable Development Goal 12)
  • Encourage the use of more energy-efficient cooking methods




  • Weather-proof landfills
  • Divert more food waste to compost and energy generation



  • Invest in improved landfills and more efficient waste collection systems
  • Reuse and recycle food packaging materials


Food System Level



Extended value chain


  • Increase access to insurance for climate risk mitigation
  • Improve extension services to share knowledge on best practices for reducing climate risks 



  • Improve extension services to share knowledge on best practices in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. sustainable soil management)
  • Provide inputs (e.g. fertilizers and packaging) that are less carbon-intensive  


Societal elements


  • Encourage public and private sector investments in agricultural research and extension services and infrastructure
  • Improve roads so that they are more climate-resilient (e.g. drainage for flooding)



  • Introduce more energy and resource-efficient cooking methods
  • Promote recycling, reuse and redistribution 
  • Conduct public health awareness campaigns to discourage overconsumption
  • Encourage consumers to reduce food waste


Natural elements


  • Increase soil carbon and organic matter
  • Improve water use to restore depleted groundwater
  • Establish green belts (agriculture and forests) in strategic areas and ensure their protection



  • Improve soil carbon sequestration
  • Discourage the practice of slash and burn 


The need for improved governance and multistakeholder approaches

Everyone – including women, men and youth, from agricultural producers and other private sector entrepreneurs, to consumers, researchers and public officials at all levels of government– has a role to play in shaping sustainable food systems. Developing sustainable food systems that are resilient to climate change and have a reduced carbon footprint will require specific and coordinated action from all stakeholders in the food system (Ingram, 2011). This section describes value chain governance and the roles that governments, the private sector, research institutions and consumers must play to support the development of climate-smart value chains for sustainable food systems. Other stakeholders will also play an important role in this regard. Multilateral institutions will be influential in encouraging global climate commitments, supporting governments in meeting national commitments in their development plans (e.g. nationally appropriate mitigation actions), and advocating for climate-smart agriculture policies. Community based organizations and non-governmental organizations will also be instrumental in informing consumers and other stakeholders in the food system about options to reduce food loss and waste through training programmes and public awareness campaigns for example.

Improved Governance

Governance, or the vertical linkages in the core value chain, plays a key role in sustainable food value chain development for sustainable food systems. Governance mechanisms can improve access to technologies, secure financing for climate-smart agriculture interventions and disseminate information about climate-smart agriculture. Since producers are typically the most vulnerable to climate risks of the value chain actors, and the majority of greenhouse gas emissions occur during production, it is important for processors and retailers to work with farmers to develop climate-smart food value chains (World Bank, 2015). For example, processors could play a more active role in shaping resilient food value chains by supplying inputs and providing extension services through contract farming with producers. Additionally, the provision of agricultural insurance and financing that allows farmers to invest in on-farm adaptive capacity would also be a potentially effective option to improving resilience (Campbell et al., 2014; World Bank, 2015).


There is a need to significantly increase agricultural investments to develop sustainable and climate-smart food systems. The government plays an important role in establishing the enabling policy environment to increase both public and private investments in this area (See Box B10.2). Governments must also ensure that infrastructure such as public transportation networks are well-designed and resilient to the impacts of climate change (Bendito and Twomlow, 2015), and that information systems are up to date, can monitor changing climatic conditions and respond to crises. There is also a need for vertical coordination between local, regional, provincial and national governments to ensure coherence in policies that support the development of climate-smart food systems.

Box B10.2  Milan Urban Food Policy Pact and City region food system approach

More municipal governments are realizing their role in developing sustainable food systems. Through the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, close to 150 cities have committed to working on developing urban food policies to improve their food systems. Important elements, such as urban planning and waste management, are dealt with by the local governments, and they can also use their public procurement power to influence the local food system. The city region food system approach enables local governments to understand their sphere of influence in the food system and work with neighbouring peri-urban and rural communities. A multistakeholder assessment process in this area is being undertaken in Colombo (Sri Lanka), Lusaka and Kitwe (Zambia), Medellin (Colombia), Quito (Ecuador), Toronto (Canada) and Utrecht (Netherlands). An assessment tool kit for local level has been developed for this purpose.

(FAO, 2017a)

Private Sector

The private sector will play a large role in the development of sustainable food systems and value chains by directing investment to making infrastructure, storage facilities, and production, processing and distribution methods more efficient in the use of resources and better able to cope with the impacts of climate change. These investments need to be channelled to post-production stages of food value chains as well as to producers. Agricultural producers, themselves, must take measures to build resilience to climate change by using inputs efficiently and exploring other climate-smart agriculture practices. The private sector can also support innovations in climate risk adaptation and mitigation interventions, improve access to information and extension services, and establish climate insurance schemes, where applicable (Reardon and Zilberman, 2017).

Research Institutions

The promotion of climate-resilient crop varieties and best management practices must be based on research and evidence to improve climate resilience (World Bank and CIAT, 2015). The scientific community can support the development of sustainable food systems by providing information, data and analyses to provide a sound basis for making strategic investments and formulating policies that can make agricultural production systems more efficient in their use of resources, less wasteful in terms of food loss and waste, and less intensive in terms of greenhouse gases emitted per unit of product (iPES Food, 2015; Beddington, 2012).


Consumers can play a role in influencing the development of more sustainable food systems and value chains for climate-smart agriculture. They can do this by demanding more environmentally friendly, 'greener' products. Consumers that 'vote with their dollars' for more sustainable food items and adopt more sustainable diets will inevitably trigger upstream effects on the food supply chain, resulting in both diversified food production and processing (FAO, 2012a). Consumers also have a responsibility to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from the food system. In developed countries, food consumption can account for as much as 15 to 28 percent of national greenhouse emissions. The level of emissions depends on the types of foods consumed (e.g. emission-intensive meat-based foods versus less emission-intensive, plant-based foods), cooking methods, and preferences for foods that are organic, local and in season (Garnett, 2011).