Climate-smart agriculture from the ground up

Executing climate-smart agriculture programs in the developing world requires getting back to basics, says global agriculture researcher Bruce Campbell.

Bruce Campbell

Bruce Campbell

Photo Credit: V. Meadu (CCAFS)

When a farmer in Kenya buys a bag of seeds, he can begin practicing climate-smart agriculture strategies immediately. Inside the seed bag is a scratch card with a code, which the farmer can text to ACRE (Agriculture and Climate Risk Enterprise) to purchase “replanting guarantee” insurance. For a typical fee of 5 to 25 percent of the inputs or harvest value, deducted automatically via a mobile phone-based money transfer service, his farm will then be monitored by satellite for 21 days. If germination fails due to drought, the farmer receives the full cost of the seeds via mobile transfer.

The ACRE “index insurance” plan, based on an index correlated with weather-related crop loss, is one of a host of innovative new projects designed to implement climate-smart agriculture in developing countries, explains Bruce Campbell, director of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The term global food system is widely in use, but to change the climate footprint you need to get very specific.”
—Bruce Campbell

Executing successful climate-smart agriculture programs in the developing world, he believes, will require starting—literally—from seed like this.

“It is a research revolution: Instead of starting out by identifying a goal to pursue, we go out and talk to stakeholders—the farmers,” says Campbell, who joined CGIAR, a French-based global research partnership, in 2009 after a long career in agricultural and forestry research in Zimbabwe, Indonesia and Australia. By identifying “impact partners” who will make things happen and strategic partners who can make it possible, he says, the strategy is to work backwards to identify the knowledge needed to bring about the change. Then, CCAFS works with people and organizations at all levels to bring its vision to fruition.

Building up resilience

The CCAFS projects focus on increasing productivity of farmers and improving small farmers’ resilience in the developing world, along with reducing greenhouse gas emission from farming systems, says Campbell. By 2025, he predicts, these kinds of climate-smart agriculture strategies will have increased the resilience of 30 million farmers and reduced greenhouse gas emission by 20 percent per food unit in the developing world.

ACRE, for example, is a for-profit social enterprise, acting as an intermediary among insurance companies, reinsurers and distribution channels such as microfinance institutions. In Kenya, many of these microfinance institutions are banks, retailers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and savings cooperatives, supplying small loans and insurance to the poor, and suppliers of agricultural inputs, such as Kenya Seed Co. ACRE offers a wide range of insurance plans, including replanting guarantees, agricultural credit to buy agricultural inputs, and contract seed grower insurance for large-scale growers. The plans are based on a wide variety of data sources: 130 solar-powered automatic weather stations, satellite rainfall measurements, remote sensing technologies and government yield statistics. Indexes have been calculated for maize, millet, sorghum, soybeans, sunflower, coffee and potatoes.

The result: For the replanting guarantee program alone, more than 9,000 bags of seed were sold and more than 700 farmers compensated during the 2014 planting season from February through April, according to Safaricom, a supplier of mobile-based payment solutions. ACRE insured more than 233,000 farms in total in 2014, including more than 89,000 in Kenya and more than 130,000 in Rwanda. On average, the insured farmers boosted their earnings by 16 percent and have invested 19 percent more in their farms than uninsured farmers, according to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and ACRE is projected to reach 3 million farmers across 10 countries by 2018, says Campbell.

Long-term coping strategies

Projects like the ACRE index insurance program are designed to cope with short-term effects of climate change by helping farmers withstand and survive extreme weather events. For long-term climate change effects, CCAFS researchers are investigating adaptation strategies, such as projects addressing recent projections that the area suited for bean production in Africa could shrink up to 50 percent by 2050 due to rising temperatures.

One plan involves swapping beans for a more heat-tolerant crop such as cassava, for example. Another focuses on developing bean varieties that are more resistant to heat, such as work done by researchers at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), who have recently identified bean varieties that show tolerance to temperatures 4 degrees Celsius higher than the range normally tolerated by beans. These new bean strains come from crosses between common beans and naturally heat- and drought-resistant tepary beans, which were grown in the Southwestern United States and Mexico in the pre-Columbian era.

Other projects are employing technology transfer such as alternate wetting and drying for rice crops (used in China and Japan for decades), which has the potential to reduce water use by 30 percent and methane emission by 48 percent in Southeast Asia. The water level in the rice field is periodically allowed to drop below the soil surface before re-irrigation, so the field is alternately flooded and non-flooded. The rice field water level is measured by small perforated PVC or bamboo tubes hammered into the soil, partly protruding above the surface.

Coordinated by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the alternate wetting and drying regimen has been field tested in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam. Vietnam’s Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Development has highlighted this method as one of the improved cultivation techniques to be adopted by the country’s 3.2 million hectares of rice cultivation areas by 2020.

Although the CCAFS projects all target poor farmers in developing countries, “the motivation for implementing climate-smart agriculture is different for each part of the world,” says Campbell, depending on the type of local agricultural system. In East Africa, the focus is livestock production, while the main issue in Southeast Asia is methane emission from rice paddies. In South America and South Asia, the climate footprint is mainly correlated to the destruction of tropical forests in connection with livestock production.

“The term global food system is widely in use, but to change the climate footprint you need to get very specific,” says Campbell.

Mogens Bisgaard

Mogens Bisgaard is a freelance science journalist and food writer based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He is a specialist in sustainability and food policy, with articles appearing in Danish trade magazines and university newsletters, and a member of the board of Slow Food Copenhagen-North Zealand.

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