What Is Climate-Smart Agriculture?

Climate change is turning the lives of farmers upside down. Unpredictable weather patterns, shorter growing seasons, droughts, extreme temperatures, and increased exposure to pests and crop diseases pose daunting problems to smallholder farmers around the world—especially in the tropics, where people tend to be more reliant on natural resources. Climate-smart agriculture techniques can help farmers adapt to and prepare for impacts in order to preserve—and even improve—their livelihoods.

With a population expected to balloon to 9.8 billion by 2050, climate-smart agriculture is crucial to global food security, as well: Smallholder farmers currently provide more than 80 percent of the food consumed in large parts of the developing world, particularly South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Climate-Smart Agriculture: The Basics

Climate-smart agriculture isn’t distinct from sustainable agriculture; rather it’s a way of combining various sustainable methods to tackle the specific climate challenges of a specific farming community. The first step is to assess the particular climate risks, since a farm facing prolonged water shortages will need different strategies than one confronting frequent flooding, for example. We use a variety of tools to assess the climate risk and vulnerability of a landscape, taking the local ecosystems and the specific crop into account. Finding the right combination to manage a specific farm’s climate challenges—and to build resilience to future impacts—is what makes climate-smart agriculture “smart.”

"Climate-smart agriculture isn’t distinct from sustainable agriculture; it’s a way of combining various sustainable methods to tackle the specific climate challenges of a specific farming community."

“Where drought and prolonged dry seasons are the main risks, a climate-smart approach might focus on planting cover crops or mulching to improve soil structure, water infiltration and retention, and overall soil fertility,” Rainforest Alliance environment director Martin Noponen explains. “In places where the risks are heavy rain and flooding, a climate-smart approach would likely focus on trenching, planting cover crops, and controlling surface water runoff with activities like vegetation barriers.”

“In other words,” Noponen adds, “climate-smart agriculture is not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The 3 Pillars of Climate-Smart Agriculture

Any climate-smart program aims to:

  • Improve farmer productivity, and as a result, livelihoods;
  • make farms more resilient to climate impacts they’re facing now, and to those likely to hit in the future;
  • and, where feasible, curb greenhouse gas emissions associated with growing food.

Here are some of the areas in which we help implement climate-smart methods:

Crop management

Once an assessment of climate impacts and risks has been conducted, climate-smart strategies tailored to a particular landscape, farming community, or even individual farm can be determined. In cocoa, for example, pruning is essential, but it has to accord with the local climate risks: Where there is extreme rainfall, pruning should be done more often to ensure stronger trees that recover faster, whereas in prolonged dry periods, a farmer needs to avoid pruning so much that primary branches and trunks are exposed to too much sunlight. Harvesting and fermentation (in the case of cocoa) also require different practices for different climate situations. In the event of heavy rains or excessive moisture, simple solar dryers can be created from wood frames and plastic sheets to dry beans.

Soil management

Contour planting on a Rwandan tea farm

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

Photo credit: Adam Gibbon

Heavy rainfall can wash away fertile top soil, especially on sloping land. Planting ground cover helps keep soil in place in the event of heavy rains—and it’s extremely beneficial in drought-prone regions, too, because it helps retain moisture in the soil. In flood-prone areas, farmers can build drainage systems to keep nutrient-rich topsoil from being washed away; trenches can also help control excess water and keep soil where it needs to be. Planting on contours, such as hills or natural terraces, is an effective way to cut down on soil erosion, as well. Mulching—applying organic matter from crop residues to the soil—can also help.

All practices that improve soil quality and structure also improve productivity—a core goal of all climate-smart agriculture. Healthy soils are also important carbon sinks that hold carbon dioxide and keep it out of the atmosphere, thus helping fight climate change.

Pest and disease management

Global warming can give rise to pests and diseases that can reduce yields drastically and even destroy entire farms. Rising temperatures have helped the roya fungus, for example, to proliferate and wipe out coffee farms all over Central America. In a changing climate, the tried-and-true ways of battling pests and diseases often fail; desperate farmers may be tempted to increase the amount of pesticides, but over-application will only increase costs, harm beneficial insects, and increase the risk of contaminating people and the environment.

Climate-smart agriculture trainings provide farmers with the knowledge they need to apply just the right amount—and at the right time of year—to combat these newly proliferating pests. Investing in pest-resistant seedlings can also help. When it comes to weeds, we advise farmers in any climate situation to use manual weeding as much as possible, taking aim at noxious weeds while leaving soft weeds that can actually replenish soil and prevent nutrient-rich top soil from eroding.

Shade trees

Shade coffee

Coffee grows under the shade of trees in Peru.

Photo credit: David Dudenhoefer

Planting shade trees is beneficial no matter what the climate risk to a specific farm or community: the right number of trees, of the right species, with the right amount of canopy can help protect the farm from excessive sun, harsh winds, and strong showers. Excessive shade, however, can contribute to a more humid microclimate on the farm, and with cocoa, for example, excessive humidity creates more favorable conditions for certain fungal diseases.

That’s why our climate-smart trainings help identify the best tree species, the ideal number of trees to plant, and an appropriate overall shade-tree system—one that might include the use of trees as windbreaks and live fences, as well as shade for crops that benefit from shade. Especially in hotter and drier climates or areas with heavier rainfall, it is important to plant different types of trees that shed their leaves at different periods of the season to ensure a continuous canopy.

Water conservation

Women collecting rainwater in the Guatemalan Altiplano

Women collecting rainwater in the Guatemalan Altiplano

Photo credit: Sergio Izquierdo

Agriculture consumes 70 percent of the world’s available supply of freshwater. As the planet continues to heat up, water shortages—already a problem in many regions—will become a more severe threat. Harvesting rainwater is one way for farms to prepare for water shortages. Communities can dig ponds lined with bamboo to better retain the water. On individual farms, there are several ways to collect rainfall, from simply placing barrels outside to creating more sophisticated systems that channel rain from roofs into barrels through a series of gutters and pipes. Traditional irrigation methods can also help address water stress on farms. Using watering cans is labor-intensive and potentially wasteful, since very dry earth can’t absorb large amounts of water at once—but placing bamboo sticks or bottles filled with water next to plants can create low-tech, slow-drip irrigation.

Climate change can also bring about too much water. The combination of long dry periods, which make the ground hard, followed by heavy rains, set the stage for flooding. Building drainage systems and trenches can channel excess water and protect crops from moisture-fueled diseases.

Our commitment to climate-smart agriculture

The Rainforest Alliance has long been at the forefront of developing and implementing climate-smart agriculture solutions. Climate-smart methods are a key part of our 2020 Sustainable Agriculture Standard. In collaboration with the World Cocoa Foundation and our research partners CIAT and IITA, we created science-based training materials for specific cocoa-growing regions and made them available to the public online in 2018; we’re continuing to create more such guides for other landscapes and crops. For smallholder farmers, learning to adapt to climate changes now—and to prepare for climate shocks in the future—can mean the difference between surviving and perishing.


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