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The Achilles heel of climate-smart agriculture

Climate-smart food systems are needed to feed growing populations while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving natural resources. However, to be successful, climate-smart agriculture interventions must be equitable and inclusive to overcome trade-offs with other Sustainable Development Goals.

In 2015 the United Nations formally adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were underpinned by the pledge ‘no one will be left behind’, by ensuring that sustainable development is equitable and inclusive1. The achievement of many SDGs is dependent on the fostering of a climate-smart food system to feed a growing population, provide secure livelihoods and conserve natural resources2. The agricultural sector faces a unique challenge: to increase food production while reducing greenhouse gas emissions caused by food production. Such action is critical given projections that global poverty could increase by anywhere between 35 and 122 million people under climate change scenarios, largely due to negative impacts on agricultural incomes3. Sustainable management of agriculture is a requirement of sustainable development4.

Credit: Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo

In response, researchers have developed agricultural technologies and practices, known collectively as climate-smart agriculture (CSA). These include drought-tolerant crop varieties and improved land management practices. Three pillars form the basis of CSA: enhancement of farmers’ ability to adapt to a changing climate; mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions; and contribution to food security plus broader development goals. CSA is seen as critical to building the resilience of food production systems to climate change, as part of efforts to realize SDG13 on Climate Action. Evidence suggests that it builds resilience and improves food security5. Development agencies have invested in scaling CSA to have wider impact.

CSA aficionados acknowledge that there are trade-offs between these three pillars6. In the quest to minimize these trade-offs, and to secure a ‘triple win’ of food security, adaptation and mitigation, there is an a priori premise that CSA contributes to broader development goals. This ignores, however, ‘higher-level’ trade-offs between CSA and some of the SDGs, specifically: No Poverty (SDG1), Gender Equality (SDG5) and Reduced Inequalities (SDG10)7. Within a depoliticized CSA agenda, these trade-offs are not given the attention they deserve, raising the danger of unintended consequences, including perpetuating poverty and reinforcing inequality.

Inequality and poverty among farmers

CSA efforts are targeted at climate change hotspots based on climate modelling. Less attention is paid to the heterogeneity of farmers and farming conditions in these hotspots, including the vulnerabilities of specific groups, or to how CSA relates to broader development challenges facing these farmers, which may be rooted in unequal power relations and entrenched inequalities.

Many farmers have benefited from CSA (ref. 8) but there is limited evidence that CSA adoption has enabled significant numbers of very poor farmers to escape poverty9, even though it is the poor who are most impacted by climate change10. Indeed, in rain-fed agriculture, which is particularly vulnerable to climate change, there are farmers for whom agricultural-based livelihoods are so precarious that even ‘climate-proofing’ their agricultural systems will not contribute to poverty reduction, let alone significant improvements in food security. For these farmers, continuing in agriculture represents little more than a persistence of poverty.

CSA is most likely to be a pathway from poverty for those farmers who are able to increase farm size and/or have access to markets in order to capitalize on new agricultural technologies and practices11. Increasing farm size is still possible in some parts of Africa but is less feasible in South Asia. In parts of Latin America, historic inequality in land distribution stymies the agricultural sector’s contribution to poverty reduction. For example, in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, land availability is 0.06 ha per person; poverty is endemic; and farm households produce maize (the main staple crop) for fewer than seven months’ consumption per year, with the majority of farmers seeking off-farm employment12.

Poverty within agricultural populations is reinforced by inequality and is linked to group-specific vulnerabilities. This is illustrated by gender inequalities bound to the inferior status of women in agriculture. In developing countries, women are a substantial proportion of the agricultural workforce and are central to food processing and preparation. Women’s contribution to agriculture depends on their access to land but they are disadvantaged due to male bias when it comes to features such as land inheritance, insurance and use of land as collateral. Women also have poor access to agricultural inputs and markets; disadvantages that multiply with climate change13. Furthermore, gender inequalities can be reproduced in how women access and benefit from CSA (ref. 14).

Inequalities extend beyond gender in society-specific ways. For example, in India, farmers belonging to marginalized castes have less access to public extension services that may facilitate increased annual crop income. Likewise, model farmers that used to disseminate improved farming practices, including CSA, become power brokers controlling access to opportunities, thus reinforcing inequalities by favouring male and excluding female farmers15.

The promotion of CSA is accompanied by an emphasis on numbers in response to strategic policy agendas seeking to scale-up CSA: the number of farmers trained, technologies adopted, and area of land converted to CSA. Numbers per se are useful but they can mask more than they reveal. For example, they say little about development indicators such as gender and social equity, specifically how existing forms of poverty and inequality shape climate vulnerabilities and determine farmers’ access to CSA or how uptake of CSA accentuates or mitigates these inequalities.

From adaptation to transformation

Recognition of the social, economic and political realities of agricultural development is critical if CSA is to have continued longevity and relevance within international agendas on climate change action and the SDGs. CSA is designed to address issues of climate change adaption, mitigation and food security/broader development goals. These broader development goals, encapsulated by the SDG pledge to leave no-one behind, mean addressing how existing poverty and forms of inequality play out in farmer uptake of CSA and its subsequent impact within an agricultural population.

Minimizing the trade-offs between CSA and SDGs 13-Climate Action, 1-No Poverty, 5-Gender Equality and 10-Reduced Inequalities, requires climate action to move beyond an adaptation and mitigation discourse to embrace a more radical ‘transformative’ agenda. A starting point for realizing the SDGs through CSA is the farmers themselves and supporting how different groups of farmers frame the options open to them, including non-agricultural livelihoods. Thus, agricultural intensification and diversification needs to be combined with the creation of non-agricultural opportunities and strengthened rural-urban linkages3. This requires ‘positive’ strategies to build livelihood improvement and avoid supporting options that simply feed into development problems elsewhere, such as urban migration generating ever greater slums and poverty in growing megacities.

Linking CSA to a portfolio of other risk management interventions is also crucial. They include forms of micro-insurance, for which there is growing emphasis in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change processes. In 2015, climate risk transfer was given a substantial boost by the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the 21st Conference of the Parties Paris Agreement and the Group of Seven (G7) InsuResilience initiative, aiming to insure an additional 400 million vulnerable people against climate risks by 2020, supported by a G7 commitment of US$550 million16.

Social protection is another risk-management mechanism that may complement or be an alternative to CSA for chronically poor and vulnerable groups. This includes social assistance (for example, cash or in-kind transfers) and/or labour market programs (for example, unemployment benefits). By alleviating credit, savings and liquidity constraints, social protection can stimulate agricultural production through investment in technology and productive assets, and increased own-farm household labour allocation9.

Whatever portfolio of interventions are appropriate, the challenge is to start by acknowledging farmers realities and to empower farmers to embrace change in ways that lead to positive livelihood transformation. Supporting constructive agricultural and non-agricultural livelihood transformation requires a deep understanding of farmers’ social, cultural, political, and economic circumstances and aspirations. This includes accepting the political dimension of agricultural development, with cognisance of the repercussions of entrenched inequality on farmer uptake of opportunities. Such an approach necessitates innovative cross- and inter-disciplinary research-for-development17 to ensure that CSA contributes more to the SDGs. It also requires comprehensive monitoring and evaluation, and impact assessments that go beyond ‘headline’ numbers to explore the more nuanced impacts of CSA interventions.

Designing and implementing CSA interventions that are equitable and inclusive means recognizing people’s differing access to CSA opportunities, and addressing the differential impacts of these interventions on existing poverty levels and inequalities. A particularly challenging proposition is encouraging different actors to work together to overcome deeply entrenched power imbalances that stymie gender and social equity. This applies to society in general, extending beyond the communities of scientists and small-scale farming populations involved in CSA interventions. Failure to do so will do little to mitigate the trade-offs with SDG1, 5 and 10. These trade-offs are becoming the Achilles heel of CSA and will ultimately undermine CSA’s contribution to the realization of sustainable development.

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Correspondence to Jon Hellin.

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Hellin, J., Fisher, E. The Achilles heel of climate-smart agriculture. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 493–494 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-019-0515-8

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