What Is Climate-Smart Agriculture?

Climate change is turning the lives of farmers upside-down. Drastically different weather patterns, shorter growing seasons, droughts, and pests pose daunting problems for smallholder farmers around the world—especially in the tropics—and could eventually lead to the disappearance of some of our favorite foods. Since those who depend on the land for their livelihoods are often the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, working with farmers to build climate resilience is critically important for global food security.

The Rainforest Alliance works with farmers around the world to promote sustainable farming practices that increase the productivity of arable land, thereby reducing encroachment on forests and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. These “climate-smart” techniques improve productivity, increase resilience against droughts, torrential rains, and changing growing seasons. Climate-smart agriculture is not a new way of farming, but rather a management system that identifies the risks posed by climate change and the best farming practices that address those challenges.

Here are some of the strategies we focus on in our climate-smart farming trainings:

Water Conservation

Access to freshwater is vital to any farm. Since agriculture consumes roughly 70 percent of the world’s freshwater, water conservation is an urgent need in areas where water is becoming increasingly scarce. Through our training and certification programs, the Rainforest Alliance emphasizes water conservation practices such as planting a buffer of trees and bushes along streams and rivers to prevent erosion and contamination from crop runoff. We also train farmers to treat wastewater caused by crop processing before it is released back into waterways. The wastewater treatment system in this video, constructed for a Rainforest Alliance Certified™ coffee cooperative by our trainer in Rwanda, demonstrates how responsible water practices support the health and well-being of communities.

Water treatment system at Finca Santa Marta, a Rainforest Alliance Certified banana farm in Costa Rica

Water treatment system at Finca Santa Marta, a Rainforest Alliance Certified banana farm in Costa Rica


Composting organic matter keeps soils rich in nutrients and more resilient to conditions like droughts brought on by climate change. Composting also reduces or eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, which can contaminate rivers and streams through runoff. Compost can be made of any number of materials, including food waste and plants, which means it can help farmers cut down on waste. Healthy soil leads to more abundant crop yields—Rainforest Alliance Certified farms regularly report yields that are 1.5 to 2 times higher than non-certified farms—thereby reducing pressure on farmers to expand their growing area (and release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere) by cutting down trees.

Wamaní community members use compost as organic fertilizer

Women of the Wamaní community in Ecuador using compost as organic fertilizer

Photo credit: Katy Puga

Manual Weed Removal

Sometimes to get the job done, you have to get your hands dirty. Pulling weeds by hand instead of using chemical weed killers is more labor-intensive in the first year or two—but it is better for soil health and can ultimately lower a farmer’s greenhouse gas emissions and operating costs. Mahendra Peiris, the manager of the Rainforest Alliance Certified Hapugastenna Tea Estate in Sri Lanka, has lowered emissions and boosted crop yields on his estate through a program of selective manual weeding, in which workers uproot noxious weeds (which are later composted) while allowing beneficial weeds to grow and restore nitrogen to the soil. Farmers using these methods, which are promoted through our training and certification programs, have not only nixed the expense of chemical herbicides and fertilizers; they have also boosted crop yields without clearing more forest because their soil is now more fertile. Approximately 80 percent of deforestation is caused by agricultural expansion, and that conversion from forest to cropland produces a significant amount greenhouse gas emissions.

Mahendra Peiris, manager of the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ Hapugastenna Tea Estate in Sri Lanka

Mahendra Peiris has lowered emissions and boosted crop yields on his tea estate through a program of selective manual weeding.

Photo credit: Jungwon Kim

Organic Fertilizer Use

Organic fertilizers encourage crop growth without introducing potentially harmful chemicals to farmers, soil, plant life, wildlife, and water. The result is richer soil and crops that are more resilient to adverse climatic conditions. Rainforest Alliance trainers in the Lampung province of Sumatra, Indonesia teach local coffee farmers how to make an organic liquid fertilizer made of compost, animal manure, and other organic materials. Similar to composting, ingredients in organic fertilizers can utilize matter that would otherwise be considered waste and sometimes is actual digestive waste.

Contour planting on a Rwandan tea farm

Countour planting, as seen here with tea bushes on a Rwandan farm, helps reduce soil erosion.

Photo credit: Adam Gibbon

Soil Erosion Reduction

Soil conservation leads to greater productivity of arable land and hence reduces the need to clear forests, which is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Planting on contours, such as hills or natural terraces, may look like large-scale landscape architecture, but it is actually an effective method to cut down on soil erosion and maintain clean water sources. The Rainforest Alliance incorporates this practice in trainings in Rwanda and other countries.

Integrated Pest Management

Climate change can destroy the habitats of many creatures, thus disrupting the food chain and leaving destructive pests to wreak havoc on crops. Instead of using harsh agrochemicals that threaten the health of the entire ecosystem, integrated pest management involves using as many preventive and natural methods as possible (such as introducing natural enemies to the targeted pest). Agrochemicals are used in small quantities, and only as a last resort. The UK branch of the Pesticide Action Network evaluated agricultural certification bodies and gave the Rainforest Alliance top honors and a citation for having the most detailed health protection requirements for pesticide use.


Activities like cattle farming and agricultural expansion are major producers of the greenhouse gases that drive climate change. The Rainforest Alliance addresses the problem of emissions caused by agriculture through agroforestry training for farmers who grow forest-friendly crops such as cocoa and coffee, which can be cultivated in the shade of newly planted trees. In Oaxaca, Mexico, for example, we’ve trained more than 250 smallholder coffee farmers in the Chatino and Zapoteca regions in agroforestry as part of an innovative carbon-coffee project. After five years of diligent work, the community is now registered with the Verified Carbon Standard. Once verified, the farms will be in a position to begin earning revenue for the reforestation efforts, which are expected to remove 130,000 tons of emissions from the atmosphere over a 30-year period. Once again, trees are our heroes—protecting crops and reducing emissions.

Shade coffee

Agroforestry in action: coffee grows under the shade of young trees in Peru.

Photo credit: David Dudenhoefer

2018 Was One of the Hottest Years on Record. Will 2019 be Worse?