GFAR blog

Scaling up climate-smart agriculture: what we know so far

Laser-assisted land levelling effectively creates a flat soil surface, improving irrigation
Laser-assisted land levelling effectively creates a flat soil surface, improving irrigation (Photo: CIMMYT India)

Getting hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers to practise climate-smart agriculture requires a coordinated effort by farmers, researchers, the private sector, civil society and policymakers.

Climate change threatens agricultural production through widespread shifts in rainfall and temperature, bringing dire consequences for the world’s poor and those who are dependent on agricultural livelihoods. Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) aims to meet these challenges head on, by harnessing practices and technologies that can boost smallholder farmers’ incomes and efficiency, enhance their resilience to the negative impacts of climate change, and where appropriate, reduce agricultural emissions.

In 2014, researchers from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate, Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) concluded that many of the world’s 750 million farmers could realistically adopt climate resilient innovations by 2030. This was based on an analysis of early evidence of success, which offered valuable lessons and insights for scaling up CSA throughout the tropics.

These examples, outlined in a 2015 booklet ‘Six Steps to Success’, include innovative farming techniques, such as laser-assisted land levelling, which is helping to substantially boost yields and income, save energy and water, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. While the technology has been adopted on over 500,000 hectares of land in India’s Haryana State, this did not happen overnight—nor did it simply spread by itself. In most cases, to successfully drive scale, several hurdles must be overcome.

Roadblocks to reaching scale

Taking on new agricultural technologies and practices requires farmers to invest their time, money or both. In addition, the rewards are often not reaped straight away. Some CSA practices, such as coffee-banana intercropping, can help coffee farmers beat the rising heat—but it takes several years for the banana trees to grow tall enough to provide significant shade coverage. Farmers must be convinced that CSA will actually provide a payoff for them.

Despite the long-term benefits of climate-smart practices, smallholder farmers tend to avoid taking risks, and many lack the resources needed to invest in these practices, reducing the likelihood that they will adopt CSA. For laser-assisted land levelling, targeted subsidies helped drive adoption in the early stages to counteract initial uptake requirements, until market saturation was reached. While subsidies may not be appropriate in all cases, or even necessary, increased financial flows will no doubt be crucial to support farmer investment, and drive CSA adoption.

The main difficulty is that there is no true ‘one size fits all’ solution that can simply be chosen to enhance the resilience of all farmers everywhere, as climate change impacts and vulnerabilities vary considerably across space and time—even within the same type crop, in the same country. Climate remedies in agriculture must be sensitive to local agro-ecological contexts and the needs of farmers, presenting a considerable challenge to reaching scale.

Overcoming barriers to adoption

To better understand how solutions can be successfully scaled up, CCAFS scientists investigated several CSA cases. They found that effective engagement and capacity development must be used to find the ‘sweet spot’ between developing context-specific solutions and establishing a wide reach. Decades of development research have shown that farmers are more likely to adopt new practices if they have been involved in the process. However, reaching individual farmers through extension services, or building scaling mechanisms from scratch, can be costly and time-consuming.

Therefore, researchers should not aim to reach scale by going door-to-door. Rather, they must develop explicit strategies for enabling next users to apply research results in non-research related processes. Many CSA interventions have successfully contributed to existing local or national multi-stakeholder platforms, which helps ground them in local context while facilitating stakeholder engagement.

Piggybacking on existing structures, schemes, and investments is a powerful way to achieve results without investing heavily in scale. Engaging with actors who have already reached scale gives an opportunity for researchers to add value. For example, CCAFS’ Climate-Smart Villages allow researchers to effectively disseminate CSA and build capacity among the most vulnerable, by including farming communities, local government and other partners in the decision-making process when planning climate-smart interventions.

Helping farmers take the right risks

A Kenyan livestock keeper in Marsabit receives an insurance payout after a prolonged drought in the region. (Photo: J. Haskins - Burness)
A Kenyan livestock keeper in Marsabit receives an insurance payout after a prolonged drought in the region. (Photo: J. Haskins – Burness)

As mentioned, farmers are risk-averse, which presents a barrier to investing in new climate-smart practices. One way to overcome this is through tailored insurance products, which help farmers ride out losses due to droughts and floods, and help them invest in better practices. For example an Index-Based Livestock Insurance program, led by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and partners, has led to development of a product that is now available through three commercial insurance partners in Ethiopia and Kenya. These insurance products trigger payouts to vulnerable pastoralists following extreme weather events, helping to build their resilience to climate change. CCAFS has also helped improve insurance products in India, which already serve over a million farmers, and is advising the Government of Nigeria on an agricultural insurance system that can benefit the country’s 14.5 million smallholder farmers.

Climate information services help farmers make the right decisions

Partnering with local radio stations helped scale out climate information services in Kaffrine, Senegal. (Photo: V. Meadu - CCAFS)
Partnering with local radio stations helped scale out climate information services in Kaffrine, Senegal. (Photo: V. Meadu – CCAFS)

Climate change makes weather unpredictable, making it difficult for farmers to know where, when, and what to plant. Climate information services can rapidly and cheaply deliver crucial knowledge to farmers at a large scale, enhancing their decision-making capacity in the face of uncertainty. In Senegal, CCAFS works closely with the National Meteorological Agency to develop the capacity of climate service providers, making them better at analysing weather data, and getting the information out to farmers in an accessible manner.

By linking scientific knowledge with farmers’ local knowledge, the farming community gained trust in the scientific forecasting methods. Messages are disseminated via SMS, and through a partnership with community radio stations; weather forecasts and advisories now reach over 7 million rural people. As a result, many farmers improved their resilience to climate change by choosing to alter crop varieties or change planting dates.

The key lesson learned from scaling out climate information services is that it is crucial to respect the needs and preferences of the target audience. This will of course vary from place to place, but also within a group. In Kaffrine, Senegal, men and women have different roles, resources, preferences and vulnerabilities, requiring targeted climate services and specific communication methods. The promising results in Senegal have lead the Ministry of Agriculture to regard climate information services as a key agriculture input, and the approach has even spread to Colombia through a South-South learning exchange.

Engagement beyond the farm

While it is of course necessary to draw in farmers to scale up CSA, it is equally important to engage with the powerful actors who set and enforce rules, to create resonating change through an enabling policy environment. National policies must be aligned to support CSA objectives. To implement and scale CSA, global organizations and national governments need to be properly informed to create the right policy, institutional, technical and financial settings to mainstream climate change concerns into the agricultural sector. The challenge is that many players are involved in these processes, requiring cooperation and coordination across a multitude of levels.

Engagement at the national level can benefit from prioritisation and planning tools such as CSA country profiles and CSA Plan. Multi-stakeholder platforms such as the Global Alliance on Climate-Smart Agriculture (GACSA) also play an important role in this regard, by providing a wide-reaching arena for collaboration and advocacy.

For CSA research to be successfully translated into results at scale, it must draw upon its integrative power. Scale must be driven from above and below, with all of the individual components at multiple levels working in synergy, driven by scientific knowledge of what works, and where.

Blogpost by Snorre Frid-Nielsen. Snorre is a student assistant at the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) Coordinating Unit, contributing to policy engagement and research. He is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Public Administration and Politics at Roskilde University in Denmark.

The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) is actively involved in the third Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development -#GCARD3


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