What's Smart About Climate Smart Agriculture?

Over the past seven years, leading international institutions involved in the design of food and agriculture policy on a global scale have increasingly turned to the rubric of ‘climate-smart agriculture’ (CSA) to coordinate their activities. Proponents of this new term include the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). For such institutions, CSA provides an appropriate set of goals and governance mechanisms to create a new global food system that is not only more productive in the quantity and variety of food it can provide, but also more resilient to climate change impacts while producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions. When we examine these proposed objectives of CSA – increased productivity, greater resilience, and a reduction in emissions – these would all appear to be goals we share and strive towards. On this basis, CSA appears, at first blush, to be a highly appropriate way to think about the intersections of food, agriculture and development for the coming decade.  In this policy brief, however, I nonetheless raise strong questions about CSA’s suitability as a governance mechanism for the promotion of a sustainable and equitable food system. As I set out below, the problem with climate-smart agriculture is not the abstract goals it lauds. Agriculture that is more productive, resilient, and less polluting is indeed a worthy ambition. Rather, the important questions are (1) what do those goals mean substantively, (2) which ones should be prioritized, and (3) how should they be realized in practice? My central concern with the CSA rubric is that, despite its calls for a new approach to global agriculture, CSA provides little indication of how any substantive change could, or should, occur. It establishes no clear principles by which to judge what kinds of productivity and resilience are desirable, nor how to deal with the inevitable tensions and trade- offs that emerge between those goals. This inherent vagueness creates the grounds under which a heavily commercialized and chemicalized input-intensive model remains the dominant driving force of global agriculture despite its problematic relationship to environmental degradation and climate change.