Opinion

What’s wrong with Climate-Smart Agriculture?

‘Climate-smart’ agriculture is the latest green-wash according to the world’s largest social movement of small-scale farmers, writes Alana Mann.

'Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security', Sourced: Flickr CC

Climate-smart agriculture sounds, well… smart. It aims to promote sustainable agricultural productivity, improve farmer livelihoods and develop more resilient food systems in the face of climate change. It will even reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with agriculture.

This sounds like a great idea considering agriculture is the third biggest contributor to GHG emissions after the burning of fossil fuels for power and heat, and transportation.

However the international farmers’ movement La Via Campesina and its allies interpret the climate-smart rhetoric as promotion of an agribusiness agenda.

This cynicism is largely based on the willingness of corporate giants such as McDonalds and Walmart to sign up to the UN’s Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, a roundtable that aspires to enable governments and other stakeholders to develop strategies for mitigation and adaptation “in ways that bridge traditional sectoral, organisational and public/private boundaries”.

McDonalds is using the platform to promote its policy of purchasing sustainable beef, while Walmart is (very) publicly embracing the opportunity to ‘lower the “true cost” of food – not only by providing everyday low costs for customers, but also by decreasing the environmental impact of agricultural practices’.

The inclusion in the Alliance of biochemical giant Syngenta and Yara, the world’s largest fertilizer company, is particularly galling to the farmers’ organisations that support low-input agro-ecological methods over biotechnological solutions (the FAO reports that 13 per cent of agricultural emissions are generated through the application of synthetic fertilizers, an increase of 37 per cent since 2001).

Civil society groups are concerned that by branding their activities as ‘climate-smart’ these and other multinational corporations will maintain their control of a food system that is failing those most vulnerable to climate change, particularly the small-scale farmers, indigenous people and women who were celebrated in 2014, the International Year of Family Farming.

La Via Campesina claims that Climate-Smart Agriculture will lead to further concentration of land ownership and force farmers to depend on ‘climate-smart varieties’ at the expense of “tried and true adaptive farming techniques and stewardship of seed varieties in practice by farmers”.

It is accelerating loss of control over territory and productive resources that is leading the social movements to call for a new geography of food production and consumption centered on small-scale, locally-based food networks underpinned by principles of autonomy and farmers’ rights. They call this ‘food sovereignty’.

Food sovereignty relies on policy-making structures rooted in principles of deliberative democracy and inclusiveness that are not articulated in the vague and sparse framework documents that spell out the vision of Climate-Smart Agriculture.

Environmental criteria, social safeguards and a clear governance structure are among the glaring omissions identified by La Via Campesina and supportive NGOs including ActionAid International, Friends of the Earth and the Malaysian-based Third World Network.

If the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture is to achieve its aim of improving people’s food security and nutrition in the face of climate change it must clearly distinguish between types of agriculture – industrial versus agro-ecological – and demonstrate that climate-smart solutions will not endorse the agendas of multinational corporations over those of family farmers.

Until then ‘climate-smart’ will be little more than a handy hashtag.


Alana Mann joined the University of Sydney in 2007 after a professional career in the media and non-profit sectors. Her teaching and research focus on how ordinary citizens get voice in policy debates regarding wicked problems such as food security and climate change. Her book Global Activism in Food Politics: Power Shift was published in 2014.