How the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture can prove its worth

A man shows a sketch of the layout of his climate-smart farm in Kenya. Climate-smart agriculture is an integrated approach to achieving food security in the face of climate change, while also mitigating climate change and contributing to other development goals. Photo by: International Center for Tropical Agriculture / CC BY-SA

Launched during the U.N. Climate Summit in September 2014, the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture aims at working toward sustainable and equitable increases in agricultural productivity and incomes, increased resilience of food systems and farming livelihoods, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. The Global Alliance will also aim to boost food and nutrition security through climate-adjusted and natural-resource efficient agricultural practices, food systems and social policies.

Climate-smart agriculture is an integrated approach to achieving food security in the face of climate change, while also mitigating climate change and contributing to other development goals.

At the beginning of 2015, the Global Alliance included 18 governments and 57 regional and international organizations whose members include farmers, scientists, businesses and civil society representatives.

Its action plan includes a target of enabling 500 million farmers to practice CSA by 2030 and other targets will be set with alliance partners and monitored annually.

Although the alliance will not finance CSA investments, it will be a platform to exchange knowledge and practical experiences, while gathering stakeholders interested in reflecting on agricultural production methods. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change cannot lead this debate because, at this stage, it is focused on the issue of mitigation, does not address sectoral issues, and because the subject of agriculture continues to be marginal.

The alliance does, however, continue to be the target of a number of professional agricultural organizations and nongovernmental organizations. To convince, it will need to specify several points.

1. Extend the priorities of the alliance.

The reflection by promoters of CSA does not include the characterization of different forms of agriculture. Family farming, landowner farming and corporate agriculture — the human, technical and financial resources of these forms of farming are extremely different and explain the various agricultural behaviors and practices. Family farming is fundamentally interested in making full use of its labor force and is consequently (excluding situations of crisis or extreme hardship) more inclined than corporate agriculture to adopt intensive tilling practices — hoeing and weeding, for example, to save water and reduce the use of herbicides.

Yet, while 2014 highlighted the social, economic and environmental importance of family farming, the alliance makes practically no reference to it. If the alliance wishes to debate methods for transforming the agriculture sector, it will need to take into account this type of farming, whose 500 million farms produce over 80 percent of the world’s food and whose structuring and professional collective actions would appear to be decisive.

The promoters of CSA make no distinction among sustainable agriculture, agriculture based on a sustainable intensification of plant production, conservation agriculture, the integration of agriculture and livestock raising, or organic agriculture. These forms of farming can sometimes be directly opposed — for example, on the use of genetically modified organisms.

The alliance will need to place greater emphasis on the potential for adapting and mitigating diversified agricultural production methods, making intensive use of ecosystem services. It will need to adopt specific objectives, for example, in terms of reducing the use of chemical inputs. And it will need to give impetus to the efforts of those who uphold agroecology by making recommendations, calling for the strengthening of scientific research activities in the field of agroecological science, and by supporting alternative forms of agriculture.

While ecosystem services and biodiversity are repeatedly referred to, they are not one of the priorities of CSA. Consequently, the aim of an intelligent agriculture could be to add a food security-adaptation/mitigation-biodiversity conservation triptych.

2. Continue with the promising territorial approach.

The promoters of climate-smart agriculture highlight the need for contextualized solutions, taking account of the multiplicity of objectives (production, social well-being, quality of the environment, climate change adaptation and mitigation) and the diversity of ecosystems.

They emphasize the multifunctionality of agriculture, whose products can range from tons of cereals to jobs or environmental services (soil carbon sequestration, improvement in groundwater quality, and so on).

Consequently, the implementation of CSA is considered at the level of a defined territory in the framework of explicit public support policies. The recommended “landscape approach” also goes beyond the traditional approach, which only focuses on the biophysical aspects (climate-soil-plant communities), and is similar to a territorial approach in that it includes issues of governance, the role of actors and institutions, and regulation.

Farmers are key private sector actors and are recognized as having empirical local knowledge, which the scientific community is invited to take into account and exploit. Furthermore, the reference to the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure is reassuring, as it recalls the need to secure access to land tenure for farmers faced with the risk of the large-scale acquisition of land by external investors and the social exclusion that would follow.

3. Debate beyond agricultural policies.

On balance, the debate remains wide open.

The alliance is interested in the work of the Committee on World Food Security (in particular the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security adopted in Rome in 2004), as well as in the numerous multilateral environmental agreements. It recognizes the prominent role of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in terms of international negotiations and undertakes to ensure that the actions it will support are not detrimental to the latter.

The alliance, whose creation has attracted considerable interest in the international community, can thereby become a forum to debate not only agricultural policies in the strict sense, but all public policies concerning food security and climate challenges, as well as those related to employment and biodiversity.

4. Mobilize all actors.

France has decided to be part of the alliance. Its Ministry of Agriculture, which is leading the French arrangements, is directly participating in the overall governance of the alliance and is involved in the “institutional environment and public policies” group. The agronomic research institutes (CIRAD, IRD and INRA), which have been actively involved until now, are pursuing the scientific dialogue within the “knowledge” group.

This is essential in building the production systems of tomorrow. The French Development Agency, for its part, should be participating in the “investments” group.

It would be unfortunate if professional organizations and international solidarity organizations do not get to assert their points of view in this international forum on the options for CSA, or quite simply smart agriculture, that meet the inseparable objectives of food security, the economic and social development of farmers around the world and environmental conservation.

This guest opinion is published in association with ID4D, an international blog for exchanges and constructive debates on development. Hosted and facilitated by the AFD, the French agency for development, ID4D is aimed at all development stakeholders.

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About the author

  • José Tissier

    José Tissier is deputy director of Agence Française de Développement's agriculture, rural development and biodiversity division — a position he has held since early 2010. In 1993, Tissier joined Caisse Française de Développement where he successively held positions as head of agricultural and rural development in Yaoundé, Rabat and Ouagadougou. At the end of 2006, he joined AFD’s headquarters in Paris as chief project engineer.