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Indigenous farming community in Cambodia. (Credit: Oxfam)

Global Alliance on Climate Smart Agriculture: Solution or Mirage?

Rashmi Mistry

 by Oxfam International

In Paris later this year, global leaders will meet at the Conference of Parties to thrash out a deal to reduce dangerous greenhouse gas emissions and to find a solution to the pressing financial needs of billions of people, smallholder women farmers among them, on the frontline in the fight to adapt to climate change.

One of the solutions put forward to address these challenges is the concept of ‘climate smart agriculture’ – but what is it? And should we be worried?

Recognition of the importance of agriculture and climate change is on the rise

Industrial agriculture is one of the major causes of climate change. Around 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally derive from the food system, including from methane from livestock production, deforestation to clear land for agriculture and nitrogen from fertilizer use.

Climate change is also creating havoc in many of the world’s farming systems, and endangers the progress made in the last few years to ensure the right to food for millions of people. Slow, insidious changes in global temperatures and shifting weather patterns, as well as increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events are disrupting production and distribution systems.

As a result – there is an increasing interest from both companies and policymakers in finding and promoting forms of agricultural production which can reduce emissions, as well as ways in way agriculture can adapt to changing conditions.

The concept of ‘climate smart agriculture’ is one way that some policymakers, companies and various stakeholders are promoting to push this agenda forward. One year ago, a Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture was launched in New York. Of course, this concept of Climate Smart Agriculture could help focus attention on critical issues such as helping farmers adapt to climate change, reducing world agricultural footprint or increasing sustainable food production and farmers’ incomes. However, the Alliance and the concept of CSA is generating considerable criticism from civil society groups (CSOs) and environmental campaigners.

Global Alliance on CSA – the solution or a mirage?

Due to its governance and design, the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture threatens to perpetuate both inequalities of power and forms of industrial agricultural production that cause major greenhouse gas emissions and drive climate change.

Comprised mainly of northern industrialized countries and multinational companies, this alliance excludes both alternative visions of agriculture and those who suffer the most from climate change: southern smallholder farmers themselves. It appears to be an attempt to capture the agenda on climate change - by those that caused many of the problems in the first place.

Moreover, the concept of climate smart agriculture as used by the Global Alliance does not involve any criteria to define what can or cannot be called “climate smart”, nor any criteria for membership in the Alliance itself Concretely, almost everything can be considered “climate-smart” by the members of the Global Alliance, including the extensive use of GMOs or chemical fertilizers. Today, 60% of the private sector membership of the alliance is related to the fertilizer industry. In these conditions, the Alliance could become a veritable ‘rogues gallery’ of some of the worst polluters.

In addition, with no measurement or benchmarks for progress: it is impossible to see whether, or in which ways the Alliance has actually contributed to reducing at all GHG emissions in agriculture or improved adaptation options for producers. At the end, the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture failed to embrace any accountability framework.Rather than business as usual, countries, companies and research institutions, including those in the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, need to embrace real solutions to our broken food system.

A positive agenda for agriculture based on agro-ecology

The good news is that there are options to tackle the challenges posed by climate change to our food! Scaling up agro-ecological agricultural practices can help reduce agricultural emissions and adapt to climate change. Agro-ecology is a scientifically grounded approach that has been field-tested by farmers around the world for decades, and that offers a powerful pathway to maintaining biodiversity, improving soil health and to protecting genetic resources.

Based on techniques, knowledge and innovations developed by the farmers themselves, agro-ecology is a major alternative to the industrial agriculture model. If sufficiently supported by political and economic decision makers, it could become a very powerful weapon to fight against both food insecurity and climate change.

A few months before COP21 in Paris, world leaders can still put agriculture and food security at the heart of the response toclimate change. Any initiative aiming at reducing the global agricultural footprint and at promoting adaptation to climate change will be welcomed. But catchwords and loose coalitions are not sufficient anymore.

To be successful, any initiative, alliance or coalition on climate change and agriculture should:

  • Fully involve, and be driven by small-scale producer organizations and other stakeholders in both design and governance at a global and national level;
  • Prioritize food security and adaptation for smallholders, who are the most impacted by climate change and the first victims of food insecurity;
  • Support the scaling up of agro-ecology, which will truly modernize agriculture by improving the sustainability of farming systems, while putting farmers in the driving seat of the innovationprocess;
  • Shift the burden of mitigation, by recognizing that large-scale industrial agriculture players – the major contributors to climate change- should bear the weight of the emission reduction efforts.

In its current guise, the Global Alliance on Climate Smart Agriculture is far from meeting these criteria. A new start is needed.

© 2021 Oxfam International

Rashmi Mistry

Rashmi Mistry is the acting head of Oxfam International's Grow Campaign. Follow her on Twitter: @RMISF

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