Climate-Smart Agriculture: Embrace Complexity!

by Jeff Brez, from COP 17 in Durban

At the IFAD-FAO-WFP Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) side event here in Durban, Foua Toloa, the Head of the Government of Tokelau, a small island country in the South Pacific, made an impassioned plea for climate justice for his country. To achieve climate smart agriculture he called for the revival and integration of traditional practices in addition to financing for research, and adaptation and mitigation actions. “We don’t want to end up a coral shelf under the surface of the sea,” he said. Tokelau has taken the drastic measure of banning the import of pesticides and fertilizer for their coconut production, he told us, because cyclones brought run off and poorly stored chemicals into their lagoons, causing green algae blooms that damaged their crucial fisheries-based livelihoods. For them, a single-benefit approach for agriculture did not work. They need an integrated solution.

Tekalign Mamo, Minister of State, Advisor to Ministry of Agriculture, for Ethiopia, shared that while there is an understanding that agro-ecological approaches are key to building climate resilience, and farmers see the advantages, there are nonetheless challenges for farmers. The farmers face enormous challenges to leaving organic material on the soil to feed and protect it because they use the organic material for fuel, fodder and other uses.

The Government is supporting the use of a range of organic materials including grasses and livestock-noxious weeds to feed the soil and provide organic matter for composting. But farmers, communities and households all have specific needs and lifestyles, so they need to be the ones to define what is climate smart agriculture in their context. They, too, need integrated solutions.

For a long time now, there has been universal acknowledgement that uncertainty of climate impacts must not slow our response and action. What we heard at the side event, from speakers and attendees alike, is that complexity must also not slow our response and action. To unlock the correct responses in complex circumstances, the solution is knowledge sharing, institutional support, and gender-focused extension services that interact with empowered farmers organizations.

Elwyn Grainger-Jones, IFAD’s Director of Environment and Climate, said CSA is more knowledge intensive than the 30-year old green revolution approach. Now there is a wide range of possible approaches that are knowledge intensive and require more social mobilization. We need more of this without imposing generic solutions, and must look across landscapes for solutions that work for farmers rather than only look at specific sector projects.

A REDD+ programme in Ethiopia, Minister Mamo offered, is financing an approach that links food security, food production and poverty reduction through a 2005 national strategy. The combination of: rehabilitation of 9 million hectares of land to increase productivity; and a productive safety net programme that addresses food insecure areas for 7 million + people through food or cash transfer to families has put more kids in school, and led to better health. This, Minister Mamo stressed, is a testament to the need for cross-sectoral approaches based in national level planning.

Peter Holmgren, Director of FAO’s Climate, Energy and Tenure Division pointed out that, “It is only the farmer that can define what is smart in the end.” He also mentioned how REDD+ should be part of a package built into landscape approaches to agriculture. Only then can we get leverage and finance for agriculture.

Carlo Scaramella, Director of Climate change and Disaster Risk Reduction at WFP, reminded attendees that CSA needs to deliver multiple benefits to vulnerable communities - in terms of food and nutrition security, community and women's empowerment, livelihoods resilience and environmental rehabilitation. It must be driven by a people-centred approach. At the same time, government leadership is key for scaling up from the community to the national level.

Dennis Garrity of ICRAF (World Agroforestry Center) had the last word, reminding us all that there are huge opportunities for scaling up climate-smart agriculture through knowledge intensive but low cash investments. Here is what he said, more or less: “We need radically different scaling up methodologies for different solutions: cash intensive irrigation solutions where financial and technical inputs are key. But there are also solutions in agro-ecological approaches that are nearly cash-zero in terms of outside needs, so scaling up can be done with community mobilization and farmer to farmer knowledge sharing to get tremendous results. In Niger 5 million hectares have been transformed through agro-ecological approaches, in Mali 500 thousand hectares… gov’t investment almost zero but still great outcomes for farmers and communities.”The event took place on Friday, 2 December, organized by the United Nations Rome-Based Agencies, IFAD, FAO and WFP, and was ably moderated by Dyborn Chibonga, CEO of the National Association of Smallholder Farmers in Malawi.