Can ‘Climate-Smart’ Agriculture Help Both Africa and the Planet?


One idea promoted at the Durban 2011 talks was “climate-smart agriculture,” which could make crops less vulnerable to heat and drought and turn depleted soils into carbon sinks. The World Bank and African leaders are backing this new approach, but some critics are skeptical that it will benefit small-scale African farmers.


By Fred pearce

Fred pearce

Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of numerous books, includingEarth Then and Now: Potent Visual Evidence of Our Changing World, and The Climate Files: The Battle for the Truth About Global Warming. –

Reblogged from environment 360

The glacial pace of international efforts to curb climate change continued at the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa […]. Governments concluded that by 2015 they should agree on legally binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions that involve all major nations — including China, India and the United States. But they also agreed that those targets would probably not come into force until 2020.

The climate isn’t waiting for the diplomats. Most experts agree that by 2020 it will likely be too late to halt dangerous warming above two degrees Celsius. So the race is now on to find new, unconventional initiatives to fill the gap. One possibility that came to the fore in Durban is fixing some of that carbon dioxide in the soils of Africa. And that is why the continent’s political leaders met in Durban to launch an initiative known, somewhat cryptically, as “climate-smart” agriculture.

The new buzz phrase went down well. Host president Jacob Zuma extolled it. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian former UN secretary-general, praised it as a panacea to Africa’s problems.

Till now agriculture has been sidelined from climat change discussions,” he said. “But Africa has a huge potential to mitigate climate change.”

Beside him sat the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the chair of the African Union Commission. They were all on hand as the World Bank announced plans to turn climate-smart agriculture into the next big thing for the world market in carbon offsets.

So what exactly is climate-smart agriculture? It sounds as if it might involve making agriculture resilient to climate change, by making soils and crops less vulnerable to droughts and heat waves. And that is part of the plan. But only part. The real prize — the one that can lure private finance — is the potential for carbon offsetting. If farm soils can be used to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then they can generate carbon credits that can be sold to industrial polluters who want to offset their emissions.

The offer from the world of carbon finance to poor farmers in Africa and elsewhere is this: Let us use your soils to capture carbon from the atmosphere, and we will, in return, make those soils more productive and less vulnerable to the climate.

This is a big deal. Nurturing the organic matter in soils on the world’s farms has as much potential to absorb carbon dioxide emissions from industrialized countries as the much better-known plans to fund forest conservation, such as REDD. Rattan Lal of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center at Ohio State University suggests

soils worldwide could capture as much as a billion tons of carbon a year — more than a tenth of man-made emissions.

Climate-smart agriculture neatly combines the twin goals of today’s climate negotiators, helping to prevent climate change while at the same time adapting farms to inevitable change.

Africa is the big prize. Its farmers are more vulnerable than any others to climate change. Some estimates suggest a hotter, more dire world could cut African farm yields by as much as 20 percent by mid-century. Without an Currently, African soils are leaking carbon as they lose organic matter due to bad farming practices. African green revolution, that would spell disaster for a continent with a population that is expected to double to two billion people.

But the continent’s huge land area — greater than the U.S., China, India, Mexico and Japan combined — also holds huge potential as a planetary carbon sink that, many believe, could create the necessary green revolution.

Currently, African soils are leaking carbon as they erode and lose organic matter due to bad farming practices. An estimated 43 percent of Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions come from land clearance, including farming. But the same soils could be turned from a carbon source to a carbon sink, absorbing many tens of millions of tons of carbon a year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

If an agricultural carbon offset program were in place, carbon dollars from Western companies could pay for composting, mulching, recycling crop waste, planting farm trees, and much else on the world’s poorest farms. Those improved soils, richer in organic matter, would grow more crops, help soils withstand droughts and floods, and — vital to earning those carbon dollars — capture carbon from the atmosphere.

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Photo © Shutterstock /Anton_Ivanov

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