September 19, 2014

Building a Framework for Climate-Smart Agriculture

Next Generation Delegation 2014 Commentary Series

By Patrick Bell, PhD candidate in Environmental Science at Ohio State University and 2014 Next Generation Delegate

At The Chicago Council’s Global Food Security Symposium 2014, discussions centered around the topic of Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of Weather Volatility and Climate Change. Within this framework, the idea of Climate-Smart Food Security, more commonly known as Climate-Smart Agriculture or CSA, was discussed as a way to make agricultural systems more productive, while at the same time helping to mitigate and adapt to climate change. At first glance this may seem like an easy research agenda, but the complexity involved with ensuring that all three aspects of the so-called “Climate-Smart Agriculture” idea are met is astounding. For an agricultural practice to be considered Climate-Smart, it must: ensure food security for those practicing it; mitigate climate change to some extent; and be proven to be resilient in the face of futureclimate change impacts.

To give an example of the complexity of climate-smart agriculture in the context of smallholder farming, take the simple practice of alternate wetting and drying (AWD) in rice production. With AWD, the rice field is flooded intermittingly throughout the entire growing season, rather the continuous flooding that is typically used in conventional rice production systems. Some studies indicate that AWD leads to water savings of 50 percent, with little or no loss in rice yield. But some studies of AWD also observed a greater release of greenhouse gasses compared to conventional systems.

As a result, in the context of Climate-Smart Agriculture, AWD could ensure food security and adapt to future climate scenarios in regions where water will be scarce, but would fail to mitigate climate change due to the release of greenhouse gases. In addition to this already difficult puzzle, add the complexity of the impacts of climate change and the high variability of future climates, and you can see how attempting to implement Climate-Smart Agriculture can become overwhelming.

Accordingly, as we move forward, we must establish a unified framework for policymakers, researchers, and development practitioners to use to rigorously evaluate various farming practices that will indeed meet these criteria for Climate-Smart Agriculture. Developing such a framework now would eliminate the faulty recommendation of agricultural practices that at first glance appear to be Climate-Smart but do not in fact meet the necessary criteria. This framework would provide a clearer picture on the gaps in the knowledge of these systems and where research efforts and policy initiatives on Climate-Smart Agriculture would be most useful.

Over the next few decades, we will have little room to miss the target on preparing our global food system for the impacts of climate change. If global food security is to be reached, a unified global framework on adapting these systems will be essential. 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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