Will 'Climate Smart Agriculture' Serve the Public Interest – Or the Drive for Growing Profits for Private Corporations?

Authors: Peter Newell, Jennifer Clapp, and Zoe W. Brent | Published: January 19, 2018

The race is on to deliver models of agricultural development that are viable and sustainable in a world of accelerated climate change.

The urgency derives from the fact that the food and agriculture sector is both a major contributor to climate change and especially vulnerable to its worst impacts.

Most studies estimate that between 20-35 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gases are associated with the food and agriculture sector, while some have it as high as 50 percent.

Industrial model

And as drought and extreme weather events associated with climate change increase, the livelihoods of a huge proportion of the world’s population – over 2.5 billion people – who make their living from the sector are on the line.

Against this background the idea of ‘climate smart agriculture’ increasingly features in high level policy discussions.

Climate smart agriculture (CSA) describes interventions that generate ‘triple wins’: that make agriculture more resilient to the effects of climate change, in ways that reduce poverty and increase yields, while at the same time reducing the substantial emissions created by the agricultural sector.

These goals are widely accepted, but there are vastly different models on offer for how to achieve them, each vying to come out on top. The stakes are enormous, as the model that dominates will shape the future of agriculture for years to come.

One view, already dominant in policy circles, seeks to apply ‘fixes’ to the existing industrial model of agriculture to make it more sustainable.

Questionable sustainabilty

This model employs a suite of modern technologies and practices including genetic engineering, biofuels, biochar, and increased use of fertilisers that will deliver a ‘sustainable intensification’ of production.

This approach is underpinned by Malthusian assumptions about growing populations and dwindling fertile land, asserting that ‘we’ need to extract more with less to sustainably ‘feed the world’.

The main champions of this dominant approach are the World Bank, UN bodies such as Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD) and large agribusiness corporations.

They find it attractive because it requires only slight changes to business as usual, while providing new opportunities for profit.

CSA projects provide a convenient cover for attempts to introduce controversial technologies into new markets or gain access to growing markets for their products, with questionable sustainabilty impacts.