Climate change puts agriculture on the hot seat

In Photo: Climate-smart agriculture in action in the Himalayas. N.Palmer/

AGRICULTURE is on the hot seat due to climate change, even as the agricultural development agenda undergo a major shift because of the significant reduction in food production and global food insecurity.

Agricultural scientists, economic experts, academics and civilized societies agree that “a dramatic increase in efforts and investment is required to transition from vulnerable nonsustainable systems to sustainable agriculture.”  In order to achieve food security, reduce poverty, safeguard and restore ecological systems, the all-embracing concept of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) may yet save the day for the projected 9 billion world population by 2050. By then, according to United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates made in 2009, crop yields will need to increase by 70 percent.

UN defines CSA as “agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, enhances resilience [adaptation], reduces/removes greenhouse gases [mitigation], where possible, and enhances the achievement of national food security and development goals.”

“Based on this definition, the bottom line is how countries look at their national interest and operationalize CSA in their respective countries,” said Dr. Leo Sebastian, Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security-Southeast Asia (CCAFS-SEA) regional program leader of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Pros and cons abound in any science-based agricultural techniques, including CSA. For one, social movements across the globe blasted it as a mere a project of agro-industry that will actually worsen climate change by failing to address such issues as governance, land uses and agricultural research.

Critics also fear that CSA is a “Trojan horse” set to marginalize smallholder farmers, journalist-author Fred Pearce writes in When the Rivers Run Dry: “They [critics] believe the arrival of carbon markets, brokers and traders in the fields of Africa can do nothing but harm.”

By dictionary definition, carbon market is any market in which carbon-emission allowances trading takes place. For example, companies are given a certain quota or permit to pollute a certain amount of carbon dioxide. These companies can sell their spare permits to other companies who wish to pollute more than their allowable limit.

In fact, talks have started among Brussels, China, South Korea and California (where carbon markets are in various state of development) about possible collaboration, although this move sparked a rally in European Union against carbon permits.

On the other hand, other critics fear that the high cost of employing consultants to monitor carbon uptake of farm soils will make it impossible for small farmers to earn income from the sale of the carbon absorbed by their soils. Only large landowners are able to reduce carbon market-transaction costs resulting in a new phase of land-grabbing called “soil grabbing.”

Gina Castillo, agriculture program manager at Oxfam America and a steering committee member of the African CSA Alliance, fears that farmers may be left out of any climate-adaptation efforts. Thus, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan warns: “These efforts must have at their heart smallholder farmers. Without their participation we will fail.”

Concerns were, likewise, aired about CSA prioritizing mitigation and carbon sequestration in soils over food security and adaptation to climate change. Devlin Kuyek, a researcher for Grain, a small international nonprofit organization that supports small farmers and social movements that struggle for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems in Africa, Asia and Latin America, called CSA a “meaningless label…meant to conceal the social, political and environmental implications of the different technology choices.”

“I do not want to be refuting other people’s analysis, opinions, perspectives, prejudices or biases on CSA. I think that’s for them to explain their position. For me, what matters most is what is really happening on the ground. What people are doing, not what they are arguing about,” Sebastian said.

“Climate change will impact on all of us. As such, inclusive and concerted efforts will be needed whether you are a big corporate entity or a small-holder farm. The big challenge is how we can bring everybody to start working and addressing the challenge.

“We cannot afford to make the issue of climate change an ideological debate. The sooner we can work together and start assuming responsibilities without antagonizing each other, the better it will be for our world. I think that the CSA approach and the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture are big strides toward that,” he said.

Sebastian, a former executive director of the Philippine Rice Research Institute, pointed out: “In the case of the Philippines, are we going to focus on addressing the interest of our smallholder farmers or the big corporate farms? For countries, where CCAFS has been working, like in Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Lao PDR, the focus is very clear—CSA is for smallholder farmers, how we can improve their resilience to climate change, sustainably increase their productivity and contribute to green agriculture.”

Over at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Laguna, scientists point out that “environmental stresses constrain rice production, affecting about 30 percent of the 700 million poor in Asia alone who live in rain-fed rice-growing areas. These stresses can be caused by extreme climatic changes, like drought, flooding or rising sea levels, while some can be inherent, like high-iron toxicity in the soil. Our breeding programs aim to develop rice types that can survive in these harsh environments.”

Dr. Bruce Tolentino, IRRI deputy director general for communication and partnerships, said: “When we at IRRI speak about CSA, we refer to the rice varieties developed that better tolerate drought, salinity, heat and flooding, and the tools that enable farmers to save water, reduce carbon emissions and plant on less-favorable soils.”

Surprisingly, funding for rice research comes mostly from western countries. As climate change threatens resource security and availability, IRRI scientists say, investment into research and development cannot be ignored.

IRRI Director General Matthew Morell revealed that over 95 percent of funding for rice research from 2010 to 2015 came from the West. Governments of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations “should seize the opportunity to drive the next Green Revolution and secure its own future food needs by increasing funding support for agriculture R&D [research and development],” Morell said.

On the whole, scientists from six research institutions—Wageningen University  Research University of California Davis, French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, UN FAO, CGIAR CCAFS and Council for Scientific and Industrial Research— said “CSA is a way to achieve short- and long-term agricultural development priorities in the face of climate change and serve as an integrator to other development priorities.”

CSA needs support from countries in “securing the necessary policy, technical and financial conditions to enable them to sustainably increase agricultural productivity and incomes, build resilience and the capacity of agricultural and food systems to adapt to climate change and seek opportunities to reduce and remove greenhouse gases while meeting their national food security.”

At the same time, more knowledge is needed about CSA, while continuous interaction between science, policy-makers and farmers essential not only to align research and decision-makers, but also to improve the efficiency of investments to successfully confront climate change.

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