One of the world’s greatest challenges is figuring out how to produce enough food to feed a growing global population without degrading the natural environment. Because food production systems account for more than a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, food lies at the heart of mitigating climate change.
The term climate-smart agriculture was first coined fairly in a 2010 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. More recently, the Biden Administration allocated over $3 billion to climate-smart agriculture programs — yet researchers worry there’s little agreement as to what the term actually means.
What Is Climate-Smart Agriculture?
As the name suggests, climate-smart agriculture is a collection of farming practices aimed at combating climate change. The approach aims to help farms reduce their emissions and adapt to climate change while still keeping up yields in the short term. As outlined by the FAO, Climate-Smart Agriculture includes:
- Management of farms, crops, livestock and aquaculture to balance livelihoods and food security, while prioritizing adaptation and mitigation
- Management of ecosystems and landscapes to conserve ecosystem services that support food security and agricultural development along with adaptation and mitigation
- Services for farmers and land managers that allow better management of climate risks and impacts and mitigation actions
- Changes in the broader food system including value chain interventions and demand-side measures that help to enhance the benefits of this climate-smart approach
It is important to note that climate-smart agriculture is not a one-size-fits-all approach to farming. Instead, proponents for global climate-smart agriculture efforts recommend best sustainable practices in the context of specific communities.
A farmer living in a drought-prone region might implement climate-smart agriculture by planting cover crops to increase water retention and soil fertility. Although climate-smart agriculture is built on existing farming techniques and principles of sustainable agriculture, it remains a fairly distinct approach. Its most unique feature is an explicit focus on addressing the effects of climate change — impacting choices around productivity, mitigation and adaptation.
What Is the Importance of Climate-Smart Agriculture?
Agriculture goes hand in hand with the state of the climate. A healthy climate is beneficial to agricultural production, while the detrimental effects of our changing climate include increased temperatures, rising sea levels and changes in weather patterns, as well as increased frequency of extreme weather events.
These climate impacts pose major risks for agricultural operations, so resilience is key in maintaining the livelihoods of those who work in the agricultural sector. Agriculture is a primary income source for people around the world who inhabit rural areas. While agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, these populations typically have a small environmental impact. However, these small-scale growers feel the effects of climate change most intensely and may not have the tools to recoup their losses.
Climate change also negatively impacts food security. Aside from the significant effects on general agricultural productivity, climate events can disrupt food quality, food availability and access to food. Increases in the severity and frequency of extreme weather events can impact food delivery, which can also lead to spikes in food pricing, and increasing temperatures can lead to spoiled food and contamination.
Since 2022 the USDA has invested in Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, a fund to support pilot schemes by farmers that aim to reduce emissions or sequester carbon. Critics have pointed out there is little oversight to ensure recipients actually make progress to mitigate climate change.
What Are the Three Pillars of Climate-Smart Agriculture?
Successful climate-smart agriculture operations aim to achieve three primary outcomes. Although not every climate-smart agriculture practice is intended to further all of these objectives, practitioners should take all of them into consideration.
- Increased Productivity
The first pillar of climate-smart agriculture is increased productivity. Growers aim to produce not just more food, but better food that will boost nutrition, food security and farm incomes. This is especially important for the 75 percent of the world’s poorest inhabitants who live in rural areas and typically rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Though increased production does not necessarily translate to food security, it can be an important factor in ensuring food availability for entire communities.
- Enhanced Resilience
Climate-smart agriculture also seeks to enhance farm resilience, promote adaptation and in turn reduce vulnerability to climate-based risks, such as drought or pests. Growers also aim to improve their capacity to maintain production in the face of long term climate stressors, such as erratic weather patterns and changing seasonal temperatures.
- Reduced Emissions
The third pillar of climate-smart agriculture is reducing climate emissions. Farms can curb their climate impact in a variety of ways, including reducing methane from ruminants like cows and lamb and preserving forests and healthy soil. Farmers can also improve how they manage manure — yet another source of methane emissions.
What Are Climate-Smart Agriculture Practices?
Climate-smart agriculture does not suggest any one single farming practice or technique. It helps farmers and communities choose best practices for their location, given assessment of climate risks and impacts. There are, however, some practices that are likely to frequently form part of climate-smart agriculture.
In climate-smart agriculture operations, the techniques for managing crops are optimized to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. One example is pruning cocoa crops. Pruning is an essential practice in cultivating cocoa, but must vary with changing conditions. For example, pruning cocoa crops should occur more frequently during periods of extreme rainfall to ensure stronger trees with faster recovery. Likewise, less pruning is encouraged during dry periods so that the primary branches and trunks of the plant are not exposed to excessive sunlight. Heavy rains and excessive moisture or humidity, which can be the result of a changing climate, also necessitate different methods of harvest.
Soil is an integral component of any agricultural operation. Climate-smart agriculture practices that help maintain and improve soil quality also boost farm resilience.
Managing soils can mean planting ground cover rather than leaving the soil exposed, helping to retain moisture during droughts and avoid erosion, which keeps soil in place during high rainfall. In areas prone to flooding, farmers practicing climate-smart agriculture can build drainage systems to keep the nutrient rich topsoil from washing away. Other methods include planting on contours like hills or terraces.
Many regenerative agriculture advocates tout the ability of agricultural soils to sequester carbon and reduce emissions, but that claim has not been borne out by the research. Despite the gaps in evidence, the U.S. has invested significant public funds in these practices over other climate solutions like dietary change.
Pest and Disease Management
Increasing global temperatures also means more pests and diseases that can cause huge damage to crops. One example is the roya fungus, which has proliferated throughout Central America and destroyed countless coffee crops. It is easy for farmers to overuse pesticides in response to these problems, but doing so increases costs, can harm beneficial insects and even runs the risk of contaminating people and the broader environment.
Climate-smart agriculture emphasizes training farmers not only to use an appropriate amount of pesticides, but to apply them at the right time of year in order to combat these newer pests. Manual weeding is also strongly encouraged for farms experiencing climatic stress — this allows farmers to focus on damaging weeds while leaving the softer weeds alone, as they can help replenish soil and prevent top soil from eroding. Of course, the tradeoff for this is an increase in grueling human labor required to keep weeds under control.
Planting the right species of shade trees to create the right amount of canopy cover can help protect crops from heavy rains, strong winds and excessive sunlight.
Shade trees can even act as live fences on lands that house both crops and livestock. In some cases however, as for cocoa, excessive shade can produce a more humid microclimate, generating ideal conditions for some fungal diseases. Climate-smart agriculture training helps farmers deploy the best practices for shade trees on their farm. In hot and dry climates, or those with heavy rainfall, farms should incorporate various types of trees that lose their leaves at different times to ensure a continuous canopy and shade cover throughout the season.
Currently, agriculture uses about 70 percent of the world’s supply of fresh water. This is becoming increasingly dangerous as water shortages and droughts occur around the globe. One practice climate-smart agriculture uses to combat and prepare for future water shortages is harvesting rainwater. Communities can successfully conserve rainwater by digging ponds and lining them with bamboo. This goal can also be achieved through simpler means, such as placing barrels outside to collect rainwater. Water can also be conserved through the use of slow-drip irrigation, particularly for dry soils that can’t absorb a lot of water at once.
What Is Missing From Climate-Smart Agriculture Policy?
One common criticism of climate-smart agriculture is its lack of a clear and concise definition, which can limit the recognition of benefits from climate-smart agriculture and allow various organizations using the term to implement very different ideas and practices.
The lack of a consistent definition increases the risk of greenwashing — in which food producers can tout their climate actions without ever having to prove their impact.
A related criticism of climate-smart agriculture is the absence of guidelines and a governing body like the one that exists for organic farming. The United States Department of Agriculture does not define the term “climate-smart agriculture,” nor does it provide measurable or enforceable goals. This is part of a larger problem in the U.S., as most USDA conservation efforts and food system approaches, including organic farming, are not evaluated based on outcomes.
Some scientists warn that federal funding for climate-smart agriculture provides little real support for small-scale farmers and instead allows industrial agriculture to reap the conservation funding benefits of unproven climate mitigation practices. The absence of coordinated guidelines across geographic regions also presents a major challenge to implementing climate-smart agriculture on a large scale.
What Are Some Examples of Climate-Smart Agriculture?
Climate-smart agriculture has been a particular focus of the World Bank Group, which has established and funded projects around the world since 2016. These projects are designed to achieve all three pillars of climate-smart agriculture through partnerships with various nations.
Climate-Smart Agriculture in Bangladesh
In Bangladesh, there is an ongoing project to increase the productivity and resilience of livestock farmers while minimizing emissions. This project targets a number of practices including farm animal nutrition and breeding.
Climate-Smart Agriculture in China
Several recent projects in China have been developed to support low-emission and resilient agriculture. One project made water use more efficient on over 40,000 hectares of farmland, and implemented technologies to improve soil conditions. These efforts boosted production of both rice and maize, which led to higher incomes while also increasing climate resilience.
Climate-Smart Agriculture in Uruguay
In Uruguay, the World Bank established the Agricultural Information and Decision Support System to further climate-smart agriculture goals and support sustainable agricultural production. Since 2014, climate-smart agriculture practices have been adopted on almost 3 million hectares of farmland by over 5,000 farmers who have improved energy efficiency and soil-management capacity.
Climate-Smart Agriculture in Brazil
Brazil created the Sustainable Production in Areas Previously Converted to Agricultural Use Project to promote low-carbon agriculture practices while boosting profitability. Over 20,000 producers and collaborators, 20 percent of whom were women, were trained over the five-year project to adopt sustainable land management practices over a total of 378,513 hectares. Although the project has only recently been completed, investors estimate that it will sequester 7.4 million tons of carbon dioxide over the next 10 years.
Climate-Smart Agriculture in Colombia
The Mainstreaming Sustainable Cattle Ranching Project in Colombia encourages participating producers to convert 38,390 hectares of pastureland to silvopastoral systems for cattle ranching, which combine growing trees along with raising livestock. In combination with technical assistance and incentives over a period of 10 years, milk production costs decreased while productivity and farmers’ incomes increased as compared to production areas without silvopastoral systems.
Climate-Smart Agriculture in Morocco
In Morocco, the Green Generation Program for Results is an ongoing endeavor to increase economic inclusion of rural youth and food security as well as the environmental sustainability of food production. It includes a pilot initiative targeting 12,000 farmers that will promote agroecology and climate-smart agriculture practices.
What You Can Do
The purpose of climate-smart agriculture is to reduce the impacts of climate change. One of the most powerful forms of food system action is dietary change, especially eating less meat and dairy. For more information, see our Take Action page.