What is Climate Smart Agriculture?

You may have been hearing the phrase “climate smart agriculture” more lately. Governor Brown embraced the term in his 2016-17 budget proposal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a climate smart agriculture initiative. And international climate efforts include the UN’s work on support climate smart agricultural practices.

So what is climate smart agriculture? Like the phrase “sustainable agriculture,” it is not universally defined, and it is used to mean many things to many people.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations takes credit for first coining the term in the lead up to the 2010 Hague Conference on Food Security, Agriculture and Climate Change. The FAO defines climate smart agriculture as “a means of identifying which production systems and enabling institutions are best suited to respond to the challenges of climate change for specific locations, to maintain and enhance the capacity of agriculture to support food security in a sustainable way.”

The FAO identifies three pillars to the concept:

  1. Sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes
  2. Adapting and building resilience to climate change
  3. Reducing and/or removing greenhouse gases emissions, where possible

climate smart graphic

Numerous other international organizations use the term climate smart agriculture (or CSA, not to be confused with community supported agriculture). For example, the World Bank offers a laundry list of practices included in CSA such as “mulching, intercropping, conservation agriculture, crop rotation, integrated crop-livestock management, agroforestry, improved grazing, and improved water management—and innovative practices such as better weather forecasting, more resilient food crops and risk insurance.”

What is striking about this list—as with many of the practices typically discussed under the CSA umbrella—is that they are readily available and proven practices that have been used by organic and conservation-oriented farmers around the world for decades. CGIAR, an international consortium of agricultural research institutes, points out that “what is new about CSA is an explicit consideration of climatic risks that are happening more rapidly and with greater intensity than in the past.”

Closer to home, the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture released a plan in 2015 comprised of ten building blocks for CSA with elements ranging from soil health to nitrogen stewardship to energy conservation. Here in California, the Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has recently started using the term in reference to a number of new and proposed programs to support agricultural solutions to climate change. CDFA also has emerging collaboration with the Netherlands to develop joint climate smart agricultural research projects.

Of course, what matters with any label is how it is defined. As we look to how climate smart agriculture is defined internationally, where the term was coined, there is much to embrace with CSA’s emphasis on agroecology principles and an ecosystems approach, practices tailored to local conditions and landscape scale efforts, reliance on existing knowledge, the imperative for institutional and financial support and ongoing research, and a balance between mitigation and adaptation.

While adopting this new catch phrase, at CalCAN we are also mindful of the importance of defining it and paying attention to the details of programs and communications that come under the climate smart banner. Stakeholder discussions will play out over the coming months as CDFA develops the framework for the Healthy Soils Initiative, one of several climate smart agriculture programs, in anticipation of funding for the program in the coming budget year. For this program and others, making the promises and principles of climate smart agriculture tangible, specific and accessible to California’s wide diversity of farmers presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

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