Climate-Smart Agriculture?

The planet’s climate is changing. Rather than debating the details of who or what is causing the change, the bottom line is in the decades to come, people will experience the planet radically different than ever before. There are many consequences of climate change; one very important consequence is the impact on agriculture. As the climate changes, weather patterns, water availability, and pest and disease ranges are also changing. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 842 million people went hungry between 2011 and 2013, or one in eight people worldwide. By 2050, another 2.4 billion mouths are predicted to need feeding. In order to feed such a large population, food production needs to increase by 70 percent. Until recently, agriculture has largely been left out of the climate change discussion. However, global agriculture ought to be at the center of that discussion, both for its role in causing climate change and for its ability to mitigate the impacts of climate change. About one-fourth of anthropogenic greenhouse gases worldwide are a result of agriculture. Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, seeps out of rice paddies and cow farts. Overuse of nitrogen fertilizers creates dead zones, like the Gulf of Mexico, where vast areas become devoid of life. Cutting down and burning forests to create more farmland releases carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas. But if agriculture is a large part of the problem, it can also be a large part of the solution. This is where climate-smart agriculture comes into play. The FAO defines climate-smart agriculture as having three main features. First, it must increase the sustainability of agricultural productivity and income of the farmer(s). Second, it must adapt and build resilience to climate change. Third, where possible, it must reduce and/or remove greenhouse gas emissions. What does that looks like in practice? A handbook, highlighting the 16 most effective climate-smart techniques, was published in the fall of 2013 by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS.) The 16 most effective techniques include the practices of intercropping and agro-forestry. Intercropping is when two or more crops are grown together at the same time. One example of this is when corn, squash and beans are grown together. Historically, this has been a common intercrop throughout Mesoamerica. According to research, “Grown together, these three crops optimize available resources. The corn towers high over the other two crops while the beans climb up the corn stalks. The squash plants sprawl along the ground, capturing light that filters down through the canopy and shading the ground. The shading discourages weeds from growing.” By growing all three crops at the same time, the land is used most efficiently, and nutrients are depleted evenly. A second effective technique is agro-forestry. Agro-forestry refers to the incorporation of trees into a farm. When crops are grown with tress, the partial shade from the trees increases photosynthesis of the crop, and so plants produce more. The presence of tress also reduces soil erosion and improves the quality of soil and water. These techniques, among others, were field-tested by CCAFS to help farmers adapt to the effects of climate change and to be more resilient to unexpected challenges like new pests. The next step is encouraging farmers to adopt climate-smart agriculture and to encourage governments to promote it.

– Claire Karban

Sources: Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security, Huffington Post, ATTRA Photo: How Stuff Works