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January-February 2012

Vol. 37, No. 1


Defining climate smart agriculture

At the 17th Conference of Parties of the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa this past December, the World Bank touted a Kenyan agricultural pilot project that on the surface seems to promote sustainable agro-ecological farming. The World Bank's attempts to get African countries to adopt the pilot as an agriculture work program under the negotiations on climate change mitigation failed when small holder farmer organizations, environmentalists and even African agricultural ministers greeted the proposal with caution. Read Sr. Ann Braudis's report on the meeting.Kenyan farmers/Photo by Jim Stipe

Much of the world's focus has been on the ways in which agriculture is now, and will further be, affected by climate change. Floods, droughts and unpredictable weather patterns in many parts of the world have made it impossible for farmers to know when and what to plant. Much less attention has been given to the impact that agriculture currently has on climate.

Fertilizers widely used to replace soil nutrients are a major source of nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas) emissions. In many countries, especially those employing industrial farming methods, nitrogen fertilizers have been overused and have contributed not only to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but to soil contamination and water pollution.

The Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project is helping farmers to incorporate more sustainable methods that reduce emissions and promote soil carbon sequestration on approximately 45,000 hectares in the Nyanza Province and Western Province of Kenya. Fertilizers are replaced with agro-ecological cropland management practices (like using cover crops, mulching, crop rotation, compost management, green manure, agro-forestry, organic fertilizer, residue management) and rehabilitation of degraded land.

In its design and development, the Kenya Agriculture Carbon Project also recognizes the important role that women and youth play in agriculture and sustainable development, and that one-size-fits-all solutions will not work in the context of agriculture. These aspects of the program resemble the recommendations put forward by over 400 scientists and other experts in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), the most comprehensive analysis of global agriculture to date, commissioned by the World Bank and published in 2008. In terms of food security and equity, agro-ecological practices are embraced by small holder farmers, faith based organizations and development groups as the most promising means to ensure food security, improve the livelihoods of people living in poverty and to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

The issue that concerned small holder farmers and prevented African countries from adopting the model for the Agriculture Work Program under the negotiations for climate change mitigation is the fact that the whole proposal of Climate-Smart Agriculture was developed around the possibility of developed countries offsetting their carbon via international soil carbon markets. Carbon trading would be set up to go through the United Nations Collaborative initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) in developing countries. The World Bank endorses the program as a way to not only to increase farmers' yields and reduce their dependence on costly inputs but to provide additional income sources due to payment for the environmental service of sequestering carbon.

Civil society groups present in Durban raised serious questions about the viability of such a program being linked to carbon markets. Firstly, the promised rate of return for small holder farmers is extremely low. The World Bank estimates that the Kenya Agricultural Carbon project will generate $2.48 million in carbon revenues over the 20-year implementation period. Of that amount, the 60,000 Kenyan farmers participating in the project would receive an average of $22.83, or about $1 per farmer per year. On top of this, transaction costs would make it unwieldy. In the first years nearly half of the expected revenues would benefit international consultants and project developers, rather than the targeted communities.

Another area of concern is just how difficult it is to measure carbon sequestration. According to the World Bank, such a project is estimated to sequester a total of 1.2 million metric tons of carbon. Only 60 percent will be discounted because soil sampling is prohibitively expensive, so computer-generated models and farmers' reports on their practices will be used, making the entire carbon reduction scheme a guessing game.

In Durban, African negotiators expressed their doubts about carbon offset promises. The head of the Africa group, Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, doubted that carbon markets would work for Africa because the majority of African farmers work on fewer than two hectares of land, "which is not enough to sequester an amount of carbon that would be meaningful to sell. We're very suspicious that offset schemes will lead to a perversion of African agriculture, with farmers farming what is incentivized, and giving up traditional crops."

The African Biodiversity Network's Anne Maina expressed concern that "soil carbon markets could open the door to offsets for genetically modified crops and large-scale biochar [burning biomass into charcoal dust and burying it in the soil] land grabs, which would be a disaster for Africa, which is already suffering from a land grab epidemic." Climate Smart Agriculture rhetoric is framed to make small holder farmers part of the solution to GHG emissions, but African farmers have not caused the problem – rather, the Northern industrialized food system is much more responsible for agriculture's runaway emissions. Thus, Climate Smart Agriculture aimed at expanding carbon markets onto African soil, shifts the blame and responsibility for addressing climate change from rich countries onto African farmers – the very people least responsible for causing the problem.

Heading into the Durban conference, only nine of 54 African countries' agriculture ministers supported the Climate Smart approach. In the final hours of negotiation, a compromise was reached, requesting the UNFCCC's scientific body to consider issues related to agriculture at their next session. This leaves open advocacy opportunities in the coming year to stop carbon traders from laying claim to African soil.

Photo of Kenyan farmers by Jim Stipe


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