'Climate smart' agricultural practices may not always be climate smart - scientist

by Julie Mollins | @jmollins | CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research)
Thursday, 21 November 2013 04:18 GMT

The risk of new agricultural technologies and new management practices leading to more, rather than less, pressure on forested areas is higher when commodities are sold in large national or international markets, says Arild Angelsen, an economist with the Center for International Forestry Research. CIFOR/Kate Evans

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Smarter farming can slow emissions but may not reduce farmland expansion and pressure on forests

Climate and farmer-smart farming can slow emissions and reduce the risk of global warming, but policymakers and practitioners should be careful not to assume that higher crop yields automatically reduce farmland expansion and related pressure on forests, a top forestry expert has said.

The world’s population is projected to expand from 7 billion people to 9.6 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations, and tropical forests risk falling victim as farmland expands to feed more people, said economist Arild Angelsen, a senior associate with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and a professor with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

If crop yields on existing farmland are boosted, pressure to convert forests to agriculture might be reduced; however, raising crop yields could also increase the incentive to convert more land to agriculture, Angelsen cautioned at a side event held at U.N. climate talks in Warsaw, Poland.

The risk of new agricultural technologies and new management practices leading to more, rather than less, pressure on forested areas is higher when food commodities are sold in large national or international markets, he said.

In larger markets, local farmers can enjoy an unlimited outlet for their produce, which may be good for raising income but may also lead to further expansion of cropland to take advantage of good market access which offers higher sales, he added.

Angelsen and David Kaimowitz, CIFOR’s former director general, edited a book which examined in which contexts higher yields can be expected to become either land-sparing or land-consuming. Labour-saving technologies can also become a risk, as they free up time for farmers to engage in land expansion, the book said.

“The lessons we learned from a series of case studies a decade ago are still very much valid, and need to be brought into the debate to avoid unpleasant surprises from the introduction of ‘climate smart’ technologies,” Angelsen said.


The U.N. Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC), 19th Conference of the Parties (COP19) — made up of 195 country members — opened with renewed urgency in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan, which smashed into the Philippines leaving thousands dead and missing on the eve of the talks. Many observers have suggested climate change is responsible for the size and scale of the massive storm.

Agriculture is subject to greater scrutiny at the COP19 talks as scientific researchers advise governments, policymakers and civil society on how best to keep the average global temperature rise below the 2-degree Celsius target set by the UNFCCC at the Cancun meeting.

“Agriculture makes up 13 percent of global emissions, on top of being the major driver of deforestation, which adds a comparable amount of emissions,” Angelsen said. “This is starting to become a bigger part of the climate change debate in relation to forests.”

In addition to reducing emissions from agriculture, farmers worldwide must also adapt to a changing local climate.

“It’s very likely that the length, frequency and intensity of warm spells or heat waves will increase over most land areas during and by the end of the 21st century,” said Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), quoting from a new scientific study at the opening session of the climate summit.

Concerns over forest-related emissions are most often viewed through the lens of the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions caused by Deforestation and forest Degradation) mechanism, which is still in the pilot-project phase throughout the Amazon, Congo and Indonesia — the world’s three largest tropical forest regions.

“Forestry has had more champions because of its biodiversity and charismatic fauna. It’s also more attractive to policymakers because the equation is more simplistic – value is preserved by keeping trees standing, whereas agriculture is more complex,” Angelsen said.

The scope and scale of agricultural emissions are more complex to manage because they are not measured in a straightforward way but  are related to such factors as how the land is irrigated, the planting cycle and the type of crops.


Developing sustainable crop-management techniques that take a more holistic approach is a key component of “climate smart” agriculture, said panelists at the CIFOR side event.

The presentation explored ways to help planners, practitioners and policymakers working in agriculture and forestry understand options available for making different landscapes and food systems more climate-smart.

This is especially important for smallholder farmers and pastoralists in developing countries who are coping with a degraded natural resource base and are being especially hard hit by changes in weather patterns. They need to learn about options for adapting production methods.

“Climate Smart must also be Farmer Smart,” Angelsen said. “In order to succeed we need to make our farmers smart and take the farmers’ perspective – they want more food, more income, to work less and take less risk. Technologies and practices that reduce emissions will only succeed if farmers see tangible benefits. No one can eat emissions reductions for dinner.”

For further information on the topics discussed in this blog, please contact Louis Verchot at l.verchot@cgiar.org