Climate Smart Agriculture. Science Fiction or the Reality?

Veröffentlicht am/Published: 28.06.2019


FAO estimates that feeding the world population will require a 60% increase in total agricultural production. However, many of the resources needed for sustainable food security has already been stretched, hence posing huge food security challenges. At the same time, projections for declines in the yields of principal crops suggest that climate change will place unparalleled pressures on humanity’s ability to grow food required, and these impacts will be particularly severe in developing countries [1]. The impact of climate change on the agricultural sector without adaption is generally projected to be severe compared to the presence of adaption strategies. In fact, model projections show that agronomic adaptation on the average is expected to improve yields by the equivalent of 15-18% over current yields compared to yields when no adaptation strategies are employed [1].

Climatic related risks to cropping, livestock and fisheries are projected to increase in the coming decades, predominantly in low-income countries where adaptive capacity is weaker. Climatic impacts on agriculture therefore threatens both food security and agriculture’s pivotal role in rural livelihoods and broad-based development. Climatic impacts on the agricultural sector has both a cause and effect relationship. Meaning the agriculture sector produces negative external effects on the climate. For example, about 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. Furthermore, agriculture is the largest source of water pollution through runoff of pesticides and fertilizers in conventional farming systems.

In the nutshell, these new climatic risks, call for changes in agricultural technologies, methods, and management practices to improve the lives of agriculture dependent populations and to ensure long-term food security and poverty reduction. One of such technology approaches been promoted in the development discourse is climate-smart agriculture (CSA) which seeks to sustainably increase agricultural productivity, adapt and build resilience of agricultural and food systems to climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. However, what mechanisms exists to steer agriculture into an era of “climate smartness”? What are the conceptual underpinnings and the various components of the concept? In this short piece, I try to provide answers to these two questions by first providing a brief overview of the conceptual underpinnings and then the mechanisms (components) of climate-smart agriculture. The objective in this short piece is to reiterate a broad and holistic approach to achieving the goals of CSA.

Conceptual underpinnings of CSA

The Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) concept was developed in order to address the complex issue of how to achieve sustainable agricultural growth for food security under climate change [2, 3]. The conceptual foundations of CSA however draws upon theory and concepts from agricultural development, institutional and resource economics [4]. The evolution of climate change policy, which has been related to collective global actions to stabilize greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, has also been instrumental in CSA conceptualization. The establishment of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol especially provided a basis for emissions reductions highly relevant to agricultural development in terms of sequestering carbon through improved soil management and forestry [5].

Recognition of the agricultural sector being key to climate change response, not only because of its high vulnerability to climate change effects, but also because it is a main contributor to the problem [6] was therefore instrumental in the conceptualization of CSA. Hence, CSA was established in response to limitations in the international climate policy arena about the role of agriculture in food security and its potential for capturing synergies between adaptation and mitigation [6].

Furthermore, another important foundation of CSA is the sustainable agriculture concept, which seeks to integrate the specificities of climate change adaptation and mitigation into sustainable agricultural development policies, programs and investments. Therefore, CSA strategies and practices have conceptual links and adhere to the general principles that underpins sustainable agriculture processes and food systems such as; improvements in the efficiency of resource use, conservation, protection and enhancement of natural resources, protection and improvement of rural livelihoods, and responsible and effective governance mechanisms. As a concept, CSA is not a proposal for a "new type of agricultural practice” or intended to provide a new set of sustainability principles, but rather a means of incorporating the specificities of adaptation and mitigation into sustainable agricultural development policies, programs and investments [6]. 

What is Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA)?

As a buzzword, “Climate Smart Agriculture” is gaining considerable traction at both the international and national levels to meet the challenges of addressing agricultural planning under climate change. Therefore, several definitions of the concept CSA have emerged from the various empirical literature and from international development organizations. CSA as a term was widely adopted before the development of a formal conceptual framework and tools to implement the approach, leading to considerable variation in meanings applied to the term, and some controversies in the use of the term [6]. However, in practice, the CSA concept involves integrating the need for adaptation and the potential for mitigation into the planning and implementation of agricultural policies, planning, and investments. CSA as a concept, hence calls for meeting three key objectives or pillars: i) sustainably increasing food security through increases in productivity and incomes, ii) building resilience and adapting to climate change (adaptation), and iii) reducing greenhouse gas emissions compared to a business as usual or baseline scenario (mitigation). In the nutshell, CSA is largely defined by its intended out-comes rather than by a set of specific practices or approaches. Notwithstanding, CSA aims to deliver global relevant principles on managing agriculture for food security under climate change.

CSA is in essence a framework that allows policy makers to develop decision support systems at both the farm and policy level with the aim of providing principles to identify technologies, management tools, and policies that will enable farmers to adapt to challenges of climate change while maintaining and improving societal well-being. CSA as a concept therefore does not work in isolation but rather linked to some external support structures, that herein act as "enabling or supporting" factors. These enabling or supporting factors act as mechanisms steering agriculture into an era of “climate smartness”. Figure 1 provides an overview of the different mechanisms to steer agriculture into climate smartness and to generate the necessary synergies and trade-offs along the three objectives of CSA. A summary of the mechanisms are provided below:

Climate smart policies (CSP) – are meant to emphasize incentives and capabilities to encourage improved decision-making of farm households. Such policies exists in the domain of development policies which are used as safety-net programs in developing countries with the aim of reducing poverty and increasing food security, and in most cases with targeting focused on economic vulnerability rather than climate vulnerability.

Climate smart institutions (CSI) – are meant to improve climate change and agricultural governance through better coordination and institutional strengthening. For example, institutions relating to information (extension), land and water management, group or cooperative approach for inputs and marketing and value chains and supermarkets are very important as enabling factors in helping agriculture and therefore farmers’ access inputs in a timely fashion, and selling their outputs. They are particularly important in enhancing productivity, sustainability and incomes of small holding agriculture.

Climate smart financing mechanisms (CSFM) – implies identifying opportunities to access climate-related financing and integrate it with traditional sources of agricultural investment finance. Furthermore, it requires changes in agricultural investment and the need for adaptation and mitigation financing. For example, adaptation to climate change entails additional costs being imposed on agricultural investments, which in the nutshell alters the projection of agricultural investment needs in terms of amount, timing and type of investment required.

Climate Smart Agriculture Technologies or Management Practices (CSA-TMP) – direct set of tools and techniques geared towards achieving agricultural productivity, climate change resilience, and GHG mitigation. Such technologies, mostly employed by farmers at the micro level include techniques such as conservation agriculture and sustainable land and watershed management (SLWM).


Concept of CSA as triangle

Figure 1: Climate smart agriculture


Concluding remarks

Climate smart agriculture as a concept has a broad implications for climate change adaptation and greenhouse gas mitigation and only by interlinking the various components of the concept can agriculture be truly “climate smart”. Viewing climate smart agriculture in this interlinked dimension provides a general framework for assessing trade-offs and synergies of CSA. This is because, the level of trade-offs and synergies achieved is directly influenced by the various components such as institutional, policy and financing factors. As an evolving concept, development of an empirical unit of measurement would provide useful insights to assess the state of “climate smartness” of agriculture, and also to identify key areas in which CSA needs to be strengthened, and to track progress over time.


[1] IPCC (2014). Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[2] FAO (2010). Climate-Smart Agriculture Policies, Practices and Financing for Food Security, Adaptation and Mitigation. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Rome, Italy.

[3] Lipper et al., (2014). Climate-smart agriculture for food security. Nature Climate Change, 4(12):1068–1072.

[4] Lipper et al., (2018). Climate Smart Agriculture: Building Resilience to Climate Change. Springer International Publishing.

[5] McCarl, B.A. and Schneider, U.A. (2001). Greenhouse Gas Mitigation in U.S. Agriculture and Forestry. Science, 294(5551):2481–2482.

[6] Lipper, L. and Zilberman, D. (2018). A Short History of the Evolution of the Climate Smart Agriculture Approach and Its Links to Climate Change and Sustainable Agriculture Debates. In Lipper, L., McCarthy, N., Zilberman, D., Asfaw, S., and Branca, G., editors, Climate Smart Agriculture: Building Resilience to Climate Change, pages 13–30. Springer International Publishing, Cham.


Peron A. Collins-Sowah is a PhD researcher at the chair of agricultural economics, University of Kiel. The core topic of his PhD research is “knowledge and incentives to implement climate-smart agriculture". Peron’s research interest are within the scope of climate change and agriculture, food security, impact assessment, renewable energy and sustainable development