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By Matt Miller, senior science writer
Across the tropics, farmers are undertaking practices that will help their operations adapt to climate change. They’re breeding plants and livestock to better withstand extreme conditions, conserving genetic diversity of their crops, and adjusting the timing of planting and irrigation.
These adaptation practices will not only help farmers deal with climate change, but also can help increase incomes and provide benefits to the environment.
At the same time, funders recognize the potential for tropical agricultural lands to mitigate the impacts of climate change. They fund projects that reduce deforestation, keep carbon in the ground and reduce agricultural emissions.
Conservationists recognize that both these adaptation and mitigation practices are essential for tropical agriculture.
However, climate mitigation and adaptation are often pursued as separate activities on tropical agriculture lands, reducing their effectiveness in meeting broader conservation goals.
A recent paper in the journal Conservation Letters — by authors representing a broad range of conservation and sustainable agriculture organizations — demonstrates that many tropical agricultural systems can “provide both mitigation and adaptation benefits if they are designed and managed appropriately and if larger landscape context is considered.”
The paper’s authors call this climate-smart agriculture.
However, there are a number of barriers including existing institutional structure, policy processes and funding mechanisms.
“There has been a huge focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation at local, national and international levels,” says Elizabeth Gray, executive director of the Conservancy’s Maryland/DC chapter and one of the paper’s coauthors. “But mitigation and adaptation are discussed in parallel policy debates that are rarely linked, led by distinct ministries and institutions, and involve different constituencies and funding sources. We are rarely talking effectively to on another.”
Basically, what the authors sought were practices that reduced the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions at the same time they enhanced the adaptive capacity of agricultural systems to climate change. This would increase agricultural yields and lead to increased food security.
Are such strategies available?
Yes, according to the authors. In fact, many well-accepted sustainable agricultural practices meet these criteria. These include using composts and minimum tillage, among others.
“Many sustainable agriculture practices offer multiple benefits, including erosion reduction and increased soil carbon,” says Gray, who previously worked for the Conservancy’s Africa program. “They have benefits for both mitigation and adaptation.”
Mitigation is more than planting trees, Gray emphasizes, and could be part of a broader strategy to better integrate land management practices. For instance, working with farmers to plant trees in strategic areas has carbon benefits while also providing shade for livestock and crops such as coffee.
Pilot projects will be essential to show the many benefits of integrating adaptation and mitigation.
“We need pilot sites to demonstrate what this looks like on the ground,” Gray says. “We need to show that by integrating adaptation and mitigation, you can achieve so much more for your effort, time and money. You realize multiple benefits from one project.”
Still, the barriers are significant. Farmers will need assistance and technical information to incorporate climate-smart agricultural practices into their operations.
Funders will need to adjust how monies are distributed to encourage linking mitigation and adaptation outcomes in specific projects. And governments and agencies will need to work better together on an integrated approach, hardly an easy task when each entity has different and occasionally competing goals.
“This integration won’t happen without transformational change,” says Gray. “But The Nature Conservancy is so well poised to play a role in this work. We work in large landscapes. We also have people working on the ground with local farmers. And we have the science to direct where this integration can be most effective.”
The paper: Harvey, C. A., Chacón, M., Donatti, C. I., Garen, E., Hannah, L., Andrade, A., Bede, L., Brown, D., Calle, A., Chará, J., Clement, C., Gray, E., Hoang, M. H., Minang, P., Rodríguez, A. M., Seeberg-Elverfeldt, C., Semroc, B., Shames, S., Smukler, S., Somarriba, E., Torquebiau, E., van Etten, J. and Wollenberg, E. (2014), Climate-Smart Landscapes: Opportunities and Challenges for Integrating Adaptation and Mitigation in Tropical Agriculture. Conservation Letters, 7: 77–90. doi: 10.1111/conl.12066