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This is the real 'Climate Smart Agriculture' - but surely not at all what the agribusiness corporations have in mind! Photo: Helena Paul.
This is the real 'Climate Smart Agriculture' - but surely not at all what the agribusiness corporations have in mind! Photo: Helena Paul.
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‘Climate-Smart Agriculture' - preparing for a corporate soil and climate-grab in Paris?

Helena Paul / EcoNexus

26th November 2015

‘Climate Smart Agriculture' can be applied to anything from industrial monocultures to agroecology, writes Helena Paul - and fertiliser, biotech and agribusiness corporations are seizing the chance to cash in. Now COP21 host France is proposing to use soils as a giant carbon sink - a fine idea in itself, but not if it's used to 'offset' continued fossil fuel emissions, and to greenwash industrial agriculture.

We have to assume the concept of 'Climate Smart Agriculture' is intended to divide and confuse, and ultimately promote the very model of industrial agriculture that is already contributing so massively to climate change.

We know that agriculture is responsible for high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, promoting climate change while destroying forests, water, soils, and biodiversity.

Yet we are told that food production must double to respond to the projected growth of human population to 9 billion by 2050, so yields must increase but use smaller areas of land for crop production, leaving more land available for biodiversity conservation or forestry.

So-called 'Climate-Smart Agriculture', we are told, can do all this. But what is it, when, how and why did it emerge, and who is behind it?

The Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome (FAO) defines it as: "agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, resilience (adaptation), reduces /removes GHGs (mitigation), and enhances achievement of national food security and development goals." FAO wants to include forestry and the sustainable intensification of production using a landscape approach. But all this can be used to promote completely different types of agriculture.

'Climate-Smart Agriculture' (CSA) was first mentioned around 2010, for example at the African Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change, held in September 2010 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and the first Global Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change at the Hague, in early November 2010.

Then it was taken up by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the 17th Conference of the Parties in Durban in 2011, where it was heavily promoted with a high level event featuring prominent African speakers such as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Smallholder farmers in Africa were constantly cited as key beneficiaries. But there were other targets too.

Reviving carbon markets ...

The concept of CSA perfectly suits the promotion of carbon markets, which are not flourishing at present. According to a World Bank report, the total value of the world's emission trading schemes, which began with the European Union scheme in 2005, was still only around US$30 billion in 2014.

However, the Bank still backs a major expansion of carbon markets in the future and aims to attract new investor and speculative interest with a vastly increased volume of units to trade. It has several initiatives to promote carbon finance.

Yet there are fundamental problems with carbon markets in agriculture: it is difficult to measure, report and verify emissions in this sector reliably. Emission reductions are not predictable in quantity or permanence, and the carbon supposedly stored in soils may be unstable for many reasons, ranging from changes of use or practice to increasing extremes of climate variability.

This is just one reason why many civil society organisations have steadfastly opposed the inclusion of agriculture in the climate negotiations.

Thus, unless CSA is carefully defined, it could be exploited to revive carbon markets by treating agriculture as a carbon sink for industrial emissions. Many governments would rather offset their mitigation obligations than tackle the real issues of reducing emissions at source and investing in clean technologies.

Climate bonds emerged more recently, reaching almost $US37 billion in 2014 according to World Climate Ltd. The Climate Bond Initiative's Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) Technical Working Group have just released for comment their proposed eligibility criteria for AFOLU projects that qualify under the 'Climate Bonds Standard', with the aim of inviting 'climate friendly' investment in agriculture.

With 'Climate-Smart Agriculture', anything goes

Currently, nothing is excluded from the range of practices that could count as 'Climate-Smart'. Thus both large-scale industrial monocultures with high inputs of fertiliser and pesticides, and agroecological approaches including agroforestry and organic agriculture may qualify.

Even though the first discussions of 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' highlighted the importance of small farmers and their vulnerability to climate change, particularly in Africa, no social or environmental criteria have been developed.

Although adaptation and food security are mentioned, CSA could instead stimulate land-grabbing for carbon sinks to offset continued emissions. Undaunted, the promoters of CSA launched the Global Alliance for 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' (GACSA) in September 2014.

It includes 22 states, and 81 other members (such as the world's largest fertiliser company Yara and the global food company Danone). At the same time McDonalds, Kellogg Company and Walmart signed the Joint Statement for Agriculture, Food Security and Nutrition, which has many of the same supporters as the Global Alliance, while Walmart announced its own 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' Platform.

One active member state is France, which hosts the climate conference in Paris in December 2015 and intends to address agriculture and soils there - see below. Meanwhile, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development launched a Low Carbon Technology Partnerships initiative (LCTPi). Within the LCTPi, Monsanto co-leads the 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' programme.

Recent Monsanto purchases include the Climate Corporation in 2013 and then (by the Climate Corporation) of Solum, which gives Monsanto new business in climate data, services and insurance, plus soil testing, in addition to its seeds and chemicals. All this could be exploited to securely capture and profit from 'Climate-Smart Agriculture'.

Among the sectors seeking to cash in is the fertilizer industry, which comprises 60% of the private sector membership of the alliance. As GRAIN points out: "They are essentially the oil companies of the food world ... They, too, have their fortunes wrapped in agribusiness-as-usual and the expanded development of cheap sources of energy, like shale gas."

Fertiliser production is estimated to account for some 1-2% of global energy consumption. According to FAO, synthetic fertiliser application is currently the fastest growing source of GHG emissions in agriculture.

GACSA member Yara also supports the agricultural growth corridors that will provide ports and infrastructure to bring its synthetic fertilisers to new markets in Africa. So is 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' just a cover for promoting an emission-intensive product to new markets?

The response from society

In a statement from September 2015 criticising GACSA, more than 350 civil society organisations say: "'Climate-Smart Agriculture' may sound promising, but it is a politically-motivated term. The approach does not involve any criteria to define what can or cannot be called 'Climate Smart'.

"Agribusiness corporations that promote synthetic fertilisers, industrial meat production and large-scale industrial agriculture - all of which are widely recognised as contributing to climate change and undermining the resilience of farming systems - can and do call themselves 'Climate Smart'.

"CSA claims to include all models of agriculture. However it lacks any social or environmental safeguards and fails to prioritize farmers' voices, knowledge and rights as key to facing and mitigating our climate challenges."

Small and family farmers still provide most of our food and must be central to the systemic change we need. 2015 is the UN year of the soil and healthy soils are fundamental to food production. It is also the year when governments are supposed to produce a meaningful climate agreement in Paris. La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement, firmly rejects the Global Alliance:

"Small farmers around the world, however, still have the knowledge and the diversity of crops and animals to farm productively without the use of chemicals by diversifying cropping systems, integrating crop and animal production, and incorporating trees and wild vegetation. These practices enhance the productive potential of the land because they improve soil fertility and prevent soil erosion."

As la Via Campesina says, small farmers can 'cool the planet' by using careful, smallscale, often labour-intensive practices to care for soils, to keep them cool, fertile and moist with cover crops and help to preserve precious water supplies, while maintaining livelihoods and the agricultural biodiversity crucial for the future in their fields.

But this approach requires major changes in most agriculture, rural development, land-use and infrastructure policy worldwide. If the advocates of CSA do not define which agricultural practices are to be defined as 'Climate-Smart' and which are not, we have to assume the concept is a strategy to divide and confuse, and ultimately promote the very model of industrial agriculture that is already contributing so massively to climate change.

France's key role in GACSA and the Paris climate conference

France is a keen GACSA member and host of the climate conference in December 2015. Here it will launch the '4 per 1000 initiative' to increase levels of organic matter in soils and encourage agricultural practices that do so, which appears positive.

However, the conference may also see a major promotion of 'climate bonds' at the World Climate Summit for investment by corporations and governments. As Coordination Sud say in a Note, 'The 4 per 1000 Initiative: Caution':

"More carbon storage in the soil should not be understood as a license to emit as much or more in other sectors of human activity. By presenting the '4 per 1000' as a vast mechanism of compensation for emissions, certain economic players could take advantage of the system simply to maintain their emission levels in their industry while funding soil restoration programmes in developing countries, to obtain a result of virtually zero emissions (the zero net emissions concept)."

Thus we risk agriculture and soils being exploited in Paris as a carbon sink to enable corporations to 'offset' emissions, and thus 'mitigate' the impacts of continuing with business as usual. This would not advance food sovereignty, help adaptation or tackle the root causes of climate change.



Helena Paul has worked for over 25 years on: indigenous peoples' rights and tropical forests; oil exploitation in the tropics; biodiversity and agricultural biodiversity; patents on life; genetic engineering (GE); synthetic biology; geoengineering; and corporate power. She has focused on agriculture and climate change, especially bioenergy, since 2006, produced reports, papers and co-written a book: 'Hungry Corporations, Transnational Biotech Companies Colonise the Food Chain'. She is also Co-Director of EcoNexus.


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