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The Debate Over ‘Climate-Smart’ Agriculture

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In December 2015, youth at the climate negotiations in Paris called COP21 protest for climate action. Image courtesy of Christian O'Rourke/ SustainUS. France, 2015.

Like many farmers, Anthony Wolimbwa finds himself worrying a good deal about the weather. But even among the ranks of people who earn their living through the land, Wolimbwa has extra reason for concern. Over the past few years, the 40-year-old Ugandan farmer has watched rains come later and later, and has observed his corn and tomato crops shrivel in the prolonged dry seasons.

Wolimbwa lost 50 percent of his corn and tomato crops this past season due to the pests that thrive in warmer temperatures. In fall 2015, he lost $5,000—no small amount for a farmer scraping by on $7,000 a year. In nearby villages, there have been floods that left 300 people missing and droughts that left others starving.

“People were eating tree leaves and wild animals and dying,” Wolimbwa said.

Wolimbwa, along with millions of other farmers world-wide, have been forced to find solutions in order to feed themselves and make a living. He has combined new technology with traditional practices to adapt to a changing climate. He plants banana trees over coffee plants to increase shade and soil moisture for the coffee crops. He also works with a university researcher to collect rain data that he plans to make accessible to his community.

Wolimbwa brought both his problems and solutions to COP21, the UN Paris Climate talks this past December, in hopes of finding more answers.

“How do you move from an old way of doing things to a new way of doing things in the face of a radically changing climate?” asked Wolimbwa.

The answer, according to a growing coalition of international governmental agencies and businesses, is called climate-smart agriculture.

Climate-Smart Agriculture

Climate-smart agriculture, commonly referred to as CSA, is a broad term developed by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to cover a range of agricultural practices expected to produce more food to meet the demands of a growing population in a dramatically changing climate. According to the United Nations, the three pillars of CSA are increasing food production, building resilient food systems, and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. A 2009 report by the FAO estimates that crop yields will need to increase by 70 percent to feed the world of 2050.

"Climate-smart agriculture" has also become the new buzzword in circles discussing climate change. In 2014, President Obama heralded CSA as a food security solution, and McDonalds and Walmart quickly followed suit, announcing their own commitments to climate-smart agriculture.

But unlike the label "organic," which requires farmers to meet specific guidelines outlined by the United States Department of Agriculture, the term "climate-smart agriculture" does not include enforceable guidelines or a certification process. And this, critics say, means that industry can put a green label on un-environmentally friendly practices and products.

Indeed, "climate-smart agriculture" is used as the rallying cry by everyone from former Vice President and environmental advocate Al Gore, who used the climate-smart title to push for more organic practices and denounce “industrial agriculture techniques,” to an agriculture giant itself, Monsanto, which sees its genetically-modified and drought-resistant seeds as part of the answer to CSA.

Organizations are using the same "climate-smart" catchphrase to convey very different ideas. All of this is leaving farmers like Wolimbwa confused and concerned. On the line is the future of small-scale farming and the need to feed a growing population.

The Players

Climate-smart agriculture is being explored by a myriad of groups ranging from the international agriculture research organization, CGIAR Consortium, which has developed heat-tolerant crop varieties, to an American farmer, Fred Yoder, who now uses a GPS tractor to more efficiently plot his seeds and soil. But it is big industry’s commitment to the label "climate-smart agriculture" that brings about the most controversy.

Companies ranging from Monsanto, a top seed producer, to Yara, the world’s largest fertilizer manufacturer, have joined a climate-smart agriculture working group with the goal of doubling the world’s food supply and halving agriculture greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. These businesses advocate an approach called “sustainable intensification,” or growing more crops in a smaller area.

They contend that increasing yields in smaller spaces would reduce greenhouse gas emissions because this practice would decrease the need to clear cut forests. They point to a study done by Stanford University that concluded that previous cases of sustainable intensification did reduce the release of a few hundred billion tons of carbon dioxide.

Each company said they would provide different tools to meet the goal of growing more using less space. Monsanto, a co-chair of the CSA business working group, said it is contributing to climate-smart agriculture through products like drought-resistant seeds.

“Business has a genuine interest in becoming more sustainable. The climate is changing and the way we do business is changing as well,” Gabriela Burian, Monsanto’s Sustainability Director, said in an email.

The world’s largest fertilizer manufacturer, Yara, is also on the CSA business working group. According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fertilizer has contributed 12 to14 percent of agriculture’s global greenhouse gas emissions. Global Justice Now, based in the United Kingdom, found that Yara contributes more greenhouse gases than the country of Norway.

But Yara’s Head of Sustainability Management, Bernhard Mauritz Stormyr, said the company is trying to make their products more "climate-smart." For example, Yara has developed “low-emission” fertilizers which, according to Stormyr, capture 90 percent of the N2O resulting from the step of ammonium burning in the creation of fertilizer. In addition, Yara has created a “N-Sensor,” which identifies a plant’s color and detects the different levels of nutrients on plants to reduce unnecessary fertilizer use. A study done by the N-Sensor distributor found that this technique decreased fertilizer and increased yields by a couple of percentage points.

Still, these comprise only a small fraction of Yara’s fertilizer products, in part because they are more expensive. Bernhard says the reason for the small amount of “low-emission” fertilizer purchases is because environmental sustainability is not a priority for many farmers buying fertilizer. In addition, a tool like the “N-Sensor” would cost a farmer nearly $20,000.

Skeptics of large industry like Yara see these "climate-smart" techniques and costs as ways that big business can take advantage of small farmers. But Bernhard clarifies that as a business the goal is to make a profit.

“We are a business. Of course we are doing this because we think this is smart for business, but I think the key element here is that we are science-based and we would not promote this as climate-smart unless we have solid evidence-based facts backing that up,” he said.

A Yara magazine article features a smiling woman from Ghana and claims that she increased her yields by five-fold. This increase in production is no easy argument to dismiss. Agriculture researchers estimate that a quarter of the people living in Sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished.

Dr. Manyewu Mutamba, an analyst for economics and policy at the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU), says it is easy for the people in the West who have already gone through an agricultural revolution to advise developing countries to “stick to traditional methods.” But he said that fertilizers have allowed farmers to increase their yields, improve their livelihoods, and help feed and provide health insurance to their families.

"I reject the idea that farmers should remain using their traditional systems of production especially when those systems have failed to feed those farmers let alone be able to generate income," said Mutamba. "If you have another organic way to increase crop yields to this extent, then they would try that.”

Many agriculture researchers argue that there are alternatives to pesticides that are climate-smart, environmentally friendly and will result in higher yields. These ecological forms of agriculture include more efficient water use in farmland, richer soils with increased organic matter, and increased pest, weed and disease control by means of in-field biodiversity instead of pesticides. A 2006 study conducted by researchers at the University of Essex in the UK compared the impacts of almost 300 recent ecological agriculture projects in over 50 poor countries, and found that these all-natural agriculture techniques resulted in an average crop yield increase of 79 percent.

Teresa Anderson, spokeswoman for ActionAid International, an environmental and social rights advocacy group, supports the university’s findings, and disagrees with the methods of large agriculture businesses like Monsanto and Yara. In her report, she warns that growing all of the same crop variety, such as a Monsanto seed, will reduce crop diversity and make the plants more vulnerable to the spread of diseases especially in a changing climate.

She points out that the range of climate-smart projects under the same name is a big problem. “Confusion arises when some politicians, policy makers, corporations, NGOs and farmers welcome, promote or collaborate on ‘climate-smart agriculture’ activities – even though these groups may be talking about very different approaches,” said Anderson.

She was not alone in her criticism of large industry dominating a global food market in the name of climate change.

CSA Skeptics

On the outskirts of Paris, demonstrators at the UN Paris Climate Talks gathered for the Global Village of Alternatives event. During the day, people from around the world took over the streets recreating their utopian future community. Agriculture was represented with peasant farmers promoting a small-scale, self-sufficient farming system. As the day wound down, the demonstrators gathered in a dark meeting hall. The scene unfolded like one of those large student assemblies in grade schools, but instead of proud parents, there were thousands of angry demonstrators. Frustrated that the official conference was dominated by high-powered government officials and business leaders, these people demanded a whole new type of power system.

One of the organizations present was a peasant farmer group, “La Via Campesina.” A dozen farmers could be identified by the orange bandannas tied to their right arms with “La Via Campesina,” in English translated to the “Life of a Farmer,” emblazoned in black. Farmers from around the world roared about the need for an agriculture system in which peasant farmers are once again independent of large agribusiness control.

La Via Campesina is one of the 365 civil society groups who have signed a letter rejecting climate-smart agriculture. There is a whole website, Climate Smart Agriculture Concerns, challenging CSA’s claims. The skeptical groups do not oppose CSA’s three pillars -- increased productivity, increased resilience to climate change and decreased greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, they object to the current big business agriculture system under which they believe small farmers and the environment suffer.

“Effectively dealing with climate change means … supporting peasant agriculture, local food systems, agrarian reform and agroecology. But this is not on the table with CSA, because it clashes with the profits of those behind it,” said Devlin Kuyek, a researcher for GRAIN, an international advocacy group that supports small farmers, and which signed the CSA rejection letter.

Types of agroecology include farming systems without the use of pesticides and one crop or monoculture farming systems which can jeopardize soil quality and the long-term health of the farm. Instead, agroecology farming focuses on improving crop yields through strategies of building soil health through means of compost, manure, and increased crop diversity.

Therefore, when it comes to climate-smart agriculture, Kuyek argues that it is just as important to know the priorities of the company or farmer implementing the agriculture practice as the agriculture practice itself. For example, when asked about drought-resistant crops, he posed the question back in an email interview: “Is that farmer’s sorghum varieties from India’s Deccan Plateau or a GM variety from Monsanto?”

One of critics’ largest complaints about CSA is that there are no environmental standards that need to be meet and currently no check-ups to ensure that those who call themselves "climate-smart" are actually acting climate smart.

“CSA is a meaningless label that can be applied to virtually anything, and this is deliberate. It is meant to conceal the social, political and environmental implications of the different technology choices,” Kuyek said.

Even the business plan itself developed by the coalition of agribusinesses, warns that “[w]ithout a commonly agreed set of social and environmental ‘safeguards,’ there is a risk that some CSA programs may have a negative impact on communities and the environment.”

Fred Yoder, chairman of the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance, even admitted that the Alliance still has no uniform standards to keep businesses accountable. Right now, he said, some parts of a company may be ‘climate-smart’ but that doesn’t mean all are.

“For instance, Monsanto wanted to call themselves ‘climate-smart’ because they have developed drought-resistant seeds and … that part is climate smart. But maybe other parts of their work is different, so just because one segment is climate smart doesn’t make the whole company climate smart,” Yoder said.

Until those certifications are created and met, skeptics are concerned that big business is just using the name to ‘greenwash’ their organizations -- or provide a false sense of environmental stewardship.

Anthony Wolimbwa

Anthony Wolimbwa, the Ugandan farmer faced with the challenges of climate change, embodies the debate of climate-smart agriculture. He has implemented traditional and new ‘climate-smart’ practices, but has also experienced the dependencies and costs associated with these new technologies that skeptics fear.

Wolimbwa has increased his crop yields through natural and technological methods. Instead of just planting corn, Wolimbwa plants an integrated system of beans and corn which allow him to make more money with hardly any more labor. His family farm includes banana trees interspersed with the coffee plants, because the trees provide shade which retain moisture in the soil and provide nutrients in the ground. Banana trees, unlike other types of trees, attract a different set of insects than the coffee plant which through predator prey relationships end up reducing the total number of pests on the farm.

His farm is also home to many new farming technologies. Wolimbwa is working with a local university to compile rain data to help farmers like himself predict forecasts to know what plants to integrate. His project will take three years. In the meantime, he sits on the Uganda National Meteorological Authority board and helps produce quarterly advisories to explain weather patterns to farmers.

However not all of Wolimbwa’s practices are all-natural. With increasing diseases resulting from pests, Wolimbwa said that he needs to use some chemicals.

In the moist seasons, he uses fungicides and chemical sprays three times a week to deal with problems like blight on his tomato crops. He explains that in his community the changing climate means increased crop diseases and unusual weather events like fog, which has lead to incidents of viral diseases and blight on his farm. He says no one knows how to deal with the viral diseases on maize, but the chemical sprays on the tomato plants saved much of his crop this past season.

However, he clarifies that fertilizers must be mixed with other techniques, and acknowledges many of the problems associated with them including the dependencies they create by requiring farmers to purchase them each season.

Drought-resistant hybrid corn does not reproduce like traditional seeds, he said, and therefore farmers need to purchase new seeds every season. Wolimbwa explains that this purely white strain of corn, “Longe-15,” is more drought resistant, pest-resistant and flood resistant then the traditional variety. In his experience, he said the hybrid-corn produced 3000-3600 kilograms per acre of harvest opposed to the indigenous variety which produced about 1000 kilograms and it took 90 days to mature instead of 120 days for the drought-resistant strain.

However there are tradeoffs. For example, the crop diversity and taste has decreased.

“I used to open up a corn and there would be blue, white, yellow and red kernels all on one corn,” he said. “Now there is only one white variety and it tastes terrible.”

And even if he wanted to plant the indigenous corn, he thinks it has gone extinct.

In addition to the dependency, Wolimbwa says that the initial costs associated with some new CSA tools are virtually impossible for smaller, poorer farmers. He estimates that it takes about $250 to grow an acre of corn, from which a farmer may receive $300 in sales. But then, there are $100 worth of expenses that go to the seed and chemical companies, tractor industries and storage costs.

“Every year, the farmer has to buy seed and coupled with the post-harvest losses, the farmer is basically working for the big industry that is producing the seed,” he said. “If we don’t address that, it’s going to be hell for farmers.”

He also said that tools like this, which only some community members can afford to buy, result in a greater divide in the rich and poor farmers in the region.

Ultimately, he said, climate-smart agriculture needs to be a careful balance between technology and ecology. And just like he started his COP21 venture with a question, Wolimbwa leaves with another one:

“How do you balance new artificial things and the natural environment to create the best output?”