More on Climate-Smart Agriculture: still not good for farmers, but at least people are talking about it

By Trudi Zundel

(Cross-posted from IATP) 

The Institute for Agriculture Trade and Policy asked me to write about their side event at UNFCCC. Nada described to us the skin-crawling frustration of most Climate-Smart Agriculture side events, which I can certainly attest to. However, I'm happy to report back on a side event moderated by COA's very own Doreen Stabinsky that gave a break-down of Climate-Smart Agriculture in the negotiations and why it's a bad deal for farmers in the real world. Negotiators from the EU  were in the audience and asking questions. 

To its most dedicated proponents, Climate-Smart agriculture is the fairy tale success story on agriculture and climate change. It provides a win-win on mitigation and adaptation: soil is supposed to be sequestered in carbon based on a set of practices put in place by the organization running the programme, and that sequestration is measured and reported to keep record of that contribution. The carbon stored is traded on an international market. The practices used to store carbon also happen to build resilience, so farms are more adaptable to the changing weather they are starting to face.

At COP17 in Durban, South Africa, Parties agreed to have an “exchange of views” on agriculture under the SBSTA; “mitigation adaptation synergies,” (read: Climate-smart Agriculture) were one of the main, and most contentious, issues on the table during those and previous talks. At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, where entire sentences can be composed of acronyms and agricultural discussions are mostly limited to 45-minute sessions that are closed to observers, it is easy to forget that the decisions countries make have significant and nuanced impacts on real people living in idiosyncratic local contexts. As a student and activist following the climate negotiations at the international political level, is always both painful and refreshing to see non-governmental organizations working to infuse the talks with the effects they may have on the ground.

We got an illuminating glimpse of this “reality” on Wednesday night at the side event “Agriculture in the Climate Talks and the Food Security Imperative: Which way to a Just Solution.” This panel discussion was moderated by Doreen Stabinsky, a senior advisor at IATP, and there were presentations from Dr. Haridas  Varikottil, Scientific Advisor on Agriculture and farmer from Caritas India; Anika Schroeder, Policy Officer Climate Change and Development, MISEREOR: and  Harjeet Singh, International Coordinator: Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Adaptation, ActionAid.

Dr. Varikottil, a farmer and research from Southern India, began the presentations by sharing his experience working with small-shareholder farmers in Southern India on agroecology programmes. He discussed how small-shareholder farmers are suffering not only from the effects of climate change but also from several compounded social factors, which have led to a dependence on external inputs. He presented his agroecology project in India, which implements community based agroecology projects by building trust and capacity with a small group of farmers, and showed how these community-led projects improved the yield and income of those they worked with.

Using his project as a successful example of community-led food sovereignty project, the other presentors laid out multiple layers in which climate-smart agriculture is fraught with social, environmental, and political problems.

Anika first pointed out the all-important distinction: Climate-smart agriculture is not agroecology. While there are significant overlaps, CSA does not exclude any practices—which means that GMOs, pesticides, and fertilizers, so long as they contributed to soil carbon sequestration, would permissible (and perhaps even encouraged) by CSA programmes. Aside from the obvious environmental problems with this approach, it also undermines one of the most important social benefits of agroecology: reducing farmers’ dependence on external inputs. The top-down approach, in which the most sequestration effective practices are prioritized over the most adaptable or context-specific approaches, is another incredibly significant social issue with CSA, not to mention the impact of having scientists from the World Bank coming and telling them how to run their farm. Anika used no-till agriculture as an example of a misguided technique that sounded good on paper but has grave social and environmental consequences.

No-till agriculture, in certain climates, can help preserve soil structure and nutrients, and is great for carbon sequestration because the soil is not disrupted. However, when poorly implemented and in warmer climates, no-till means an extensive weed problem; if they don’t have the experience or capacity to deal with that, farmers turn to pesticides which are environmentally and physically harmful, and makes them dependent on outside resources.

In  terms of actually mitigating  climate change, capturing carbon in the soil is not anywhere near as effective as stopping emissions at the source—Anika outlined the serious scientific doubt about whether or not carbon captured in soil actually stays in the soil, and most importantly for emissions trading, the uncertainty about measuring that.

Finally, Climate-smart agriculture is politically unjust. The developing world should not be responsible for mitigating developed country emissions, especially not at the cost of their farmers sovereignty, health, and resilience. I am as baffled as Harjeet about the justification for focusing on agriculture under mitigation and ignoring it under the various forums focused on adaptation.

The dubious mitigation “pay-offs” that CSA could bring in no way justify the social, political, and environmental compromises, and the presenters did a good job of explaining those compromises.

What truly set it apart, though, was the 45-minute question and answer period, in which the EU negotiators on agriculture (some of the biggest proponents of CSA), a man frfrom the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project (a World Bank pilot project on CSA), and a senior policy advisor on CSA from the FAO, took the floor.

The EU negotiators and the policy advisor from the FAO raised the concerns that most people do in response to CSA critiques: it doesn’t have to be the way that you’ve laid it out. We’re working to address those concerns and to fix the problems with it.

The response from both Harjeet and Anika  gets to the crux of the CSA issue at the UNFCCC, and perhaps the root of climate problems in general: a lack of trust. Language about agriculture has gotten more and more vague, but the disagreements remain the same. Anika put it simply: Given how CSA has been handled in pilot projects and under the World Bank the panelists do not trust that the programme will be implemented in a way that addresses their concerns. Without explicit, detailed promises that prohibit markets and ensure agroecological methods, this work programme is too dangerous for farmers. There is no internationally agreed definition of agroecology, and an abject refusal to recommend agroecological practices under the FAO’s CFS, so such a favorable outcome is politically unlikely. And, as the presentors cogently pointed out, there is no need for Climate Smart Agriculture, but there is a need for support for adaptation for adaptation’s sake.  Soil is for food, not carbon. 


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