TWN Briefing 
What’s wrong with the Alliance on Climate-Smart Agriculture?

Published by Third World Network


What’s wrong with the Alliance on Climate-Smart Agriculture?

Is Climate-Smart Agriculture really a “triple win” or just a Trojan horse?

Climate-Smart Agriculture – the claims

According to the World Bank and the FAO, climate-smart agriculture is a system of agriculture that can give developing country farmers a “triple win”. It claims to help farmers to 1) adapt to climate change, 2) increase yields, and 3) mitigate climate change by reducing emissions or sequestering carbon.  

On the surface, this approach would appear to resonate with the demands of farmer and civil society organisations, particularly in developing countries. Instead, these groups have expressed scepticism, concern, distrust and even outright opposition.  Much more so over the current efforts of the forces behind Climate-Smart Agriculture to push for a global alliance comprised of governments, formal institutions, civil society, and the business sector being planned for launching in September 2014 during the UN Secretary-General’s so-called Climate Summit.[i]  The global alliance is hinged on regional consultations that will be conducted during the FAO’s regional conferences in early 2014.

Ecological image, industrial practice?

Agroecological approaches must be the basis of genuine climate solutions in agriculture. The proponents of Climate-Smart Agriculture point to ecological projects and partners to highlight social, ecological, and climate priorities.

But it seems that Climate-Smart Agriculture also means industrial agriculture – and the very practices and players which cause climate change and farmer vulnerability. Fertilisers are a major contributor to climate change through N2O emissions. Dependence on the agrochemical industry’s hybrid seeds has led to the erosion of the indigenous crop diversity that farmers need to meet changing and challenging conditions. Yet Climate-Smart Agriculture is clearly and closely linked to partners who promote fertilisers, pesticides and industrial agriculture. These include Yara (the world’s largest fertiliser company) and CropLife (the biotechnology lobbying agency). Factory farming is a major contributor to developed country emissions and yet Climate-Smart Agriculture works closely with the Danish pig industry, while talking of “sustainable intensification” of livestock. Such players are incompatible with a sincere objective of ecological, genuine climate-resilient agriculture solutions.

The mitigation money myth

A key element of the Climate Smart Agriculture package is finance from carbon markets. Proponents claim that carbon offsetting mitigation activities could fund adaptation and food security co-benefits.

There are many good reasons for rejecting this as a climate strategy. There is a significant risk that agriculture carbon offsets will incentivise “carbon land grabs” by large-scale investors, and genetically modified organisms.[ii] The plummeting price of carbon towards less than 1€per ton shows that carbon markets are an over-hyped, unreliable, volatile and inequitable source of funding. Precious and limited donor public finance for adaptation in developing countries is being diverted towards measurement, reporting and verification of carbon stocks for carbon markets. Setting up carbon markets requires huge investment, but generates few returns, and allows developed countries to avoid meeting their financial commitments to fund adaptation. Experiences from the UNFCCC’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects on reducing methane emissions in rice farming show that the ultimate aim to earn carbon credits results in the adoption of uniform hybrid seeds, farm inputs/technologies, and farming practices by participating farmers as prescribed by proponents from the agro-chemical industries and their partners in formal research institutions. Climate-Smart Agriculture may therefore undermine farmers’ rights, adaptation strategies and adaptation finance.

The world needs real low-emissions, climate-resilient agriculture: by small producers using agroecological methods

The International Assessment on Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) concluded in 2009 that agriculture is at a crossroads.[iii] Indeed, the climate crisis will make agricultural production more challenging in many regions. Alarmingly, crop yields have already begun to fall due to increases in temperature globally.[iv]

The necessary response to the climate crisis is not a gimmicky “climate-smart” solution. The responses and solutions lie in real low emissions technologies: organic fertilizers, composts, and manures; cover cropping; agroforestry and agropastoral systems that use tree, crop, and animal diversity to increase the fertility of cropping systems. Low emission solutions must drastically reduce or eliminate the use of synthetic fertilizers, which are responsible for a significant amount of global emissions from agriculture. Monocultures of genetically engineered herbicide tolerant crops, hidden behind the innocuous sounding name of “no-till agriculture” or “conservation agriculture” are not low emissions solutions. Developed countries must also reduce their overconsumption of meat and eliminate industrial production practices, both major sources of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The responses and solutions to climate change lie in those technologies and practices that increase the climate resilience of systems. Many of the practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions also increase the resilience of agricultural systems and increase the water-holding capacity of soils: practices that increase diversity within the system; practices that build the humus content of soils through use of organic fertilizers and cover cropping.[v] In parallel, there is urgent need to widely disseminate as much traditional and local seed varieties as possible among peasants and small-scale farmers worldwide to provide them with wide options to adapt to the changing climate and environmental conditions in the years to come.

These are the real needs and solutions that must be created for a truly low-emissions, climate-resilient agriculture. If the practices promoted by the Climate-Smart Agriculture Alliance depend on synthetic fertilizers and herbicide tolerant plants, that’s really being climate-dumb.


[ii]The Gaia Foundation. 2011. Clear as mud: why agriculture and soils should not be included in carbon offset schemes.

[iii]McIntyre, B. et al. 2009. International assessment of agricultural knowledge, science and technology for development (IAASTD). Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

[iv]Lobell, D.B. et al. 2011. Climate trends and crop production since 1980. Science 333(6042): 616-620.

[v]Stabinsky, D. and Lim L.C.. 2012. Ecological agriculture, climate resilience, and a roadmap to get there. Penang, Malaysia: Third World Network.