While many people are aware that agriculture is highly susceptible to the effects of climate change, few know that agricultural practices contribute about 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
This has led to the development of an entirely new concept: “climate-smart agriculture.”
At the recent international climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, South African President Zuma touted the three major benefits of climate-smart agriculture: sustainably increasing agricultural productivity; making the land less susceptible to a warming climate while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and enhancing food security.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has just released a new guidebook that underscores the need for climate-smart agricultural practices and provides advice to small farmers on how they can benefit from climate mitigation finance schemes.
The critical need to help farmers engage in climate-smart practices is bolstered further by new research that links agricultural practices such as crop burning to elevated levels of black soot and methane in the atmosphere, both of which contribute to global warming and can be more easily addressed than levels of carbon dioxide.
Scientists, farmers, and governments around the world are now working to design agricultural supports and programs that can help minimize the negative impact of agriculture on our climate while boosting farm production.
Sounds too good to be true? It is still early days but there are some indications that this approach to farming can help farmers become nascent environmentalists AND boost their harvests.
CARBON IN MOZAMBIQUE
On a recent trip to Mozambique I saw climate-smart agriculture in action as practiced by small farmers living in the Nhambita community near the Gorongosa National Park. These farmers participate in the Nhambita Community Carbon Project operated by a company called Envirotrade.
The project has made payments to about 3,000 individual households and 20 communities that are working to sequester carbon on their land either through planting trees on smallholdings or protecting forests on large community lands. Envirotrade provides smallholders with seedlings and technical assistance on how to improve the productivity of their farmland while reducing emissions and increasing stored carbon.
A farmer who complies with an agreed land use plan receives a share of revenues paid to Envirotrade for the sale of carbon offsets based on the predicted amount of carbon to be stored on the farmer’s plot over a 99 year period. Approximately 30 percent of the individual contractors are women.
One farmer (who I will call Joao) gave me a tour of his small farm, and explained how he and his family had transformed the land by adopting sustainable agricultural techniques such as mulching, intercropping, agro-forestry (planting mango and orange trees) and planting trees as natural fences.
Joao had also stopped burning crop waste, a practice with potentially enormous impact in a country where at least 40 percent of the land area burns every year, in large part due to farming practices. Joao benefited in two ways: he substantially increased his crop yields and lowered his carbon emissions, which brought him modest carbon payments from the project.
How has the introduction of climate-smart farming practices affected Joao and his family? He reported that family income had increased significantly, primarily due to increased crop productivity but also as a result of the carbon payments they received. The fine new house under construction in his small family compound was evidence of the family’s growing prosperity. He is teaching his children to be able to put climate-smart agriculture to work on their own farms someday.
A key element of the Nhambita project is its insistence that project beneficiaries have secure rights to the land they farm. Project developers recognize that farmers have little incentive to invest in their land if they worry that it will be taken from them because they lack secure rights to the land.
Mozambique law gives perpetual land use rights to individuals and communities although private ownership is not allowed. While implementation of the land law is spotty, farmers like Joao are more willing to invest when their land rights are secure.
Indeed, secure land rights are a precondition for climate-smart agriculture and for increased agricultural productivity on small farms almost everywhere.
Climate-smart agriculture represents a promising strategy to improve livelihoods and food security while also reducing black soot and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – a “win-win” for developing country farmers and the planet alike.