What does it mean to be a “climate-smart” farmer?

Written by Liz Khomenkov

There are a lot of labels floating around in the food systems world, and a lot of them sound similar. This article is meant to demystify the labels that exist about farming with the earth and climate in mind. 

First, let’s establish the current labels around agriculture. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has defined the term “sustainable agriculture” as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that have a site-specific application that will do several things over the long term: 

  1. Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
    • To sustain a semblance of our current consumption, sustainable agriculture must meet consumer’s needs as much as possible. 
  2. Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends.
    • If we have any hope of continuing agriculture as our main source of food, we must rebuild our natural resources from which we have already drawn so much. 
  3. Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
    • Waste must be minimized; overproduction should be limited in favor of natural processes that generate less waste. 
  4. Sustain the economic viability of farm operations.
    • Farmers should stay supported financially, which is dependent on keeping farms’ soils healthy and fertile. 
    • This may come in the form of subsidies or incentive programs. 
  5. Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

This definition leaves a lot of room for location-specific alternatives and flexibility for farmers who are struggling to transition to a more sustainable model. There are financial and social barriers to this transition. Although we would argue that the benefits outweigh the cons, getting over the transitional “hump” can be daunting for many farmers. 

Now, time for the star of the show. What is climate-smart agriculture and how is it different from sustainable agriculture? 

Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) is another term that is used to describe a specific type of farming ideology. CSA is an integrated approach to managing landscapes- cropland, livestock, forests, and fisheries- that addresses the interlinked challenges of food security and climate change. While sustainable agriculture outlines the specific practices that agriculture ought to achieve, CSA integrates these principles into an ideology of landscape management while tying in food security and climate concerns. 

CSA hopes to implement a wide range of practices that result in not only benefits for surrounding ecosystems but socioeconomic benefits as well. These include increased productivity that yields more and higher quality food; enhanced resilience against climate emergencies, pests, and diseases; and reduced emissions, avoiding deforestation and increasing carbon sequestration.

Global food demand is projected to increase to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050. An increase in food production, with our current production methods, is linked to agricultural expansion and unsustainable use of land and resources. The global agrifood system emits a third of all emissions today. CSA encourages players in the agroecological food web to reflect on their roles and assess what they are able to do for the benefit of their land and their people. This will look different for each individual according to their ability and level of involvement. We must focus on what we can do within the food system to ease our pressure on the earth.