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Trudi Zundel

To its most dedicated proponents at the U.N. climate talks in Doha, “climate-smart agriculture" (CSA) is the fairy tale success story on agriculture and climate change. To the World Bank, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and several agriculture-focused NGOs, it provides a win-win on mitigation and adaptation: Carbon is supposed to be sequestered in soil based on a set of practices that a project manager puts in place and farmers implement, and that sequestration is measured and recorded as carbon credits. The carbon credits are then supposed to be traded on an international market. The practices used to store carbon are also supposed to build resilience, so farms can adapt to the changing weather they are starting to face.

At COP 17 in Durban, South Africa, parties agreed to have an “exchange of views” on agriculture under the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA); “mitigation adaptation synergies,” (read: climate-smart agriculture) were one of the main, and most contentious, issues on the table during those and previous talks. At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where entire sentences can be composed of acronyms and agricultural discussions are mostly limited to 45-minute sessions that are closed to observers, it is easy to forget that the decisions countries make have significant and nuanced impacts on real people living in very different local contexts. As a student and activist following the climate negotiations at the international political level, it is always both painful and refreshing to see non-governmental organizations working to infuse the talks with the effects they may have on the ground.

We got an illuminating glimpse of this “reality” on Wednesday night at our side event “Agriculture in the Climate Talks and the Food Security Imperative: Which way to a Just Solution.” This panel discussion was moderated by Doreen Stabinsky, a senior advisor at IATP, and there were presentations from Dr. Haridas Varikottil, scientific advisor on agriculture and a farmer from Caritas India; Anika Schroeder, policy officer on climate change and development from MISEREOR, and Harjeet Singh, an international coordinator of disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation for ActionAid.

Dr. Varikottil, a farmer and researcher from southern India, began the presentations by sharing his experience working with small-holder farmers in southern India on agroecology programs. He discussed how small-holder farmers are suffering not only from the effects of climate change but also from several compounded social factors which have led to a dependence on external inputs such as GMO seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. He presented his agroecology project in India, which implements community-based agroecology initiatives by building trust and capacity with a small group of farmers, and showed how these community-led projects improved the yield and income of those they worked with.

Using his project as a successful example of a community-led project that promotes food sovereignty, the other presenters laid out multiple layers in which CSA is fraught with social, environmental and political problems. Schroeder pointed out the first important distinction: Climate-smart agriculture is not agroecology and is not the same thing as adaptation. While there are significant overlaps, CSA does not exclude any practices—which means that GMOs, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, so long as they contributed to soil carbon sequestration, would be permissible and perhaps even be encouraged by CSA programs. The CSA approach also undermines one of the most important social benefits of agroecology: reducing farmers’ dependence on external inputs. This is precisely why many agrochemical companies such as Syngenta and Yara are interested in CSA. The top-down approach in which sequestration is prioritized over the most context-specific adaptation approaches, is another critically significant problem with CSA. This is currently the approach the World Bank is promoting and trying to expand through its Carbon Finance Unit’s support for one-size-fits-all “soil carbon methodology,” according to Schroeder.

Schroeder used no-till agriculture, in certain circumstances, as an example of a misguided technique that sounds good on paper but has grave social and environmental consequences. No-till agriculture, in certain climates, can help preserve soil structure and nutrients, and is great for carbon sequestration because the soil is not disrupted. However, when poorly implemented and in warmer climates, no-till means an extensive weed problem. If they don’t have the experience or capacity to deal with the weeds, farmers turn to pesticides which are environmentally and physically harmful—and costly, according to Shroeder. In terms of actually mitigating climate change, capturing carbon in the soil is at best an emerging science in assessing its true mitigation potential and certainly not anywhere near as effective as stopping emissions at the source. Schroeder outlined the serious scientific doubt about whether or not carbon captured in soil actually stays in the soil, and underlined the weakness in economic fundamentals of the approach: for soil carbon to have any economic worth for emissions trading, its uncertainty and lack of permanence in soils and the problems associated with measurement have to be addressed.

Finally, climate-smart agriculture is politically unjust, according to Singh. The developing world should not be responsible for mitigating developed-country emissions, especially not at the cost of their farmers’ sovereignty, health and resilience. I am as baffled as Harjeet Singh from ActionAid about the justification for focusing on mitigation in agriculture, particularly in developing countries, and ignoring agriculture completely under the UNFCCC’s recommendations to country’s National Adaptation Plans, Adaptation Committee or Nairobi Work Program.

The dubious mitigation “wins” that CSA proponents advertise in no way justify the social, political and environmental costs associated with this approach. The presenters did a good job of explaining these costs and tradeoffs.

What truly set the side event apart, though, was the 45-minute question and answer period, in which EU negotiators on agriculture, a representative of the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project, and a senior policy advisor on CSA from the FAO, took the floor. The EU negotiators and the policy advisor from the FAO raised familiar concerns in response to CSA critiques, saying that it doesn’t have to be the way that you’ve laid it out. We’re working to address those concerns and to fix the problems with it.

The responses from both Singh and Schroeder hit at a key concern regarding CSA in the UNFCCC and perhaps the root of climate negotiations in general: The lack of trust and agreed definitions and meanings of terminologies. Language about agriculture has gotten more and more vague in UNFCCC texts, but the disagreements between opponents and proponents of CSA remain divergent.

Schroeder put it simply: Given how CSA has been handled in pilot projects, and under the World Bank, the panelists do not trust that a UNFCCC agriculture work program will be implemented in a way that addresses these concerns. There is no internationally agreed definition of agroecology, and an abject refusal to even recommend agroecological practices under the FAO’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS). That would have to be the first step to create a sound UNFCCC work program on agriculture, in addition to a prohibition of soil carbon markets and a clear priority on adaptation. Such a favorable outcome is politically unlikely. As the presenters cogently pointed out, there is no need for climate-smart agriculture, but there is a need for support for adaptation for adaptation’s sake. Soil is for food, not carbon.

Trudi Zundel is part of a student delegation from the College of the Atlantic to COP18, where she is tracking the negotiations on agriculture and working with Earth in Brackets, a climate-justice focused organization of international youth from College of the Atlantic.