Farmers in Ghana form a dry-season vegetable garden to help them adapt to increasingly harsh conditions. Climate-smart approaches to food production can help small-scale farmers, pastoralists and fishermen. Photo by: C. Peterson / CIAT / CCAFS / CC BY-NC-SA

After years of fighting a losing battle against weather conditions in Reru, a village in rural western Kenya, Mary Ogello was finally able to make peace with a climate that has been increasingly erratic, swinging wildly between extremes and serving up higher and higher temperatures.

When she was armed with detailed insights about things such as when the rainy season should begin and the likelihood of floods or drought, Ogello was able to make important decisions about the best crop varieties to plant and when to plant them, and to then select optimal times for weeding her crops and feeding them fertilizer.

The results she and her fellow farmers achieved were dramatic: yields for maize and sorghum were three to four times above normal.

Ogello was practicing what agriculture and climate experts are calling a “climate-smart” approach to agriculture. It’s a catchall phrase that covers the many ways farmers can avoid becoming a victim of climate change and actually increase food production, as today it’s increasingly clear that unless we get a lot smarter about the way we produce food, the abrupt and widespread shifts in growing conditions could be devastating.

The need for climate-smart agriculture is made all the more urgent by the fact that climate change will be exerting more and more pressure on global food security at the same time that the world’s population will be rising to unprecedented levels. It was with these antagonistic trend lines top of mind that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the establishment of a new Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, officially launched at Tuesday’s U.N. Climate Summit in New York.

The alliance seeks nothing short of an agricultural revolution in which the best minds from a variety of disciplines — including meteorology, agronomy, climatology, and crop and soil science — work with local partners to reach hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers who are the mainstays of food production in places like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

GACSA has set the ambitious goal of arming half a billion farmers with the tools and approaches of climate-smart agriculture by 2030. The goal, and it is absolutely achievable, is a global food system in which farmers are able to sustainably boost production while also increasing their resilience to climate challenges and limiting agriculture’s sizable climate footprint — which now constitutes 32 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But success in reaching 500 million farmers will require an intensive pursuit of both scientific and social innovation.

To achieve this goal, CGIAR, a global consortium that involves 15 agricultural research centers, thousands of scientists and hundreds of partners, announced it will commit at least 60 percent of its budget to climate-smart agriculture.

CGIAR is a founding member of the alliance and a key partner in several of its initiatives. It embraces the challenges that lie ahead from a strong position. Our centers have spent the past few years making climate-smart agriculture integral to all of their work, much of it coordinated by the Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.

The program’s efforts include helping large communities of farmers like Mary Ogello become “climate-smart villages.” Together, farmers and scientists help test, identify and implement innovative approaches that can provide a safety net for small-scale farmers when weather extremes overwhelm even the best adaptation efforts. For example, a new form of crop insurance that ties payouts to rainfall thresholds — avoiding the prohibitively costly need to visit each farm to document claims — has made crop insurance affordable to tens of thousands of farmers in remote areas of Africa and Asia.

CCAFS also works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture where possible.

For example, next month, in its role as one of the partners in the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the program is launching a new program to reduce methane emissions — a potent greenhouse gas — from irrigated rice paddies, which produce large quantities of methane. Scientists found that emissions can be greatly reduced by alternating between wet and dry periods on irrigated rice farms. The project draws from two CGIAR centers, the Philippine-based International Rice Research Institute and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, which are teaming up with policymakers and agricultural extension leaders from Bangladesh, Colombia and Vietnam.

It is this mix of collaboration and innovation that can help make GACSA a success.

Another initiative of global importance is the Africa Climate-Smart Agriculture Alliance. Working together with governments, NGOs and research bodies, this alliance aims to empower 6 million smallholder farmers across sub-Saharan Africa to become climate-smart by 2021. A parallel effort is the Africa Climate-Smart Agriculture Partnership, endorsed by 28 African countries and regional bodies. Through these coalitions, Africa established its voice at this week’s U.N. Climate Summit. Such changes are urgent, as more than 95 percent of African agriculture depends on rainfall, and crops are often already grown at their limits of tolerance for heat and moisture.

For the world’s small-scale farmers, pastoralists and fishermen, intelligent approaches to food production embodied in the “climate-smart” movement are the only feasible way forward, as climate change is already undermining crop yields, limiting pastureland, decreasing fish catches, and introducing new crop pests and disease. The hundreds of partners convened by the U.N. Climate Summit and united through GACSA can steer farmers away from a collision course with climate change, helping them ride out the turbulence that lies ahead and pilot food production to a soft landing.

In partnership with CGIAR Development Dialogues, a Sept. 25 conference hosted by CGIAR Consortium in New York for which Devex serves as a proud media partner.

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About the author

  • Bruce Campbell

    Bruce Campbell is the director of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security and a staff member of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). He was previously based in Zimbabwe, Indonesia and Australia, where he has worked in agricultural and forestry research for development. He has published over 120 peer-reviewed articles and more than a dozen books.