20 December 2013

Promoting climate smart agriculture: why be so shy about policies?

Climate-smart agriculture has become an important subject on the development agenda. With agriculture representing around one third of greenhouse gaz (GHG) emissions and agriculture being likely to be one of the main potential victims of climate change, much has been and is being said about new ways in which agriculture can both adapt to and mitigate  climate change.

One just needs to look at the Climatesmartagriculture website published by the Climate-smart agriculture partnership (FAO, IFAD, World Bank, WFP, UNEP, Global Mechanism and CGIAR) to see how the number of publications on agriculture and climate change recorded on the site has been increasing steadily in recent years (31 during the first 10 months of 2013, 32 for 2012, 26 in 2011, 25 in 2010, 22 in 2009 and 4 in 2008). Similarly, a considerable number of events on this topic have been organised recently.

Most of the literature produced is focused on technical aspects of the climate-agriculture relation. It provides details on a number of technical options that have been tested successfully, usually on a relatively small scale, under research conditions or in projects, which show how agriculture can either adapt to or mitigate climate change. Much of this demonstrates the knowledge-intensive nature and the specificities of many of the technical options presented to local agroecological conditions. It also provides tools to estimate the impact of agriculture on climate change. It also includes some discussion on mechanisms for  payment for environmental services, but very little is said on policies, barring maybe in a few cases.

For example the FAO publication on climate change and land tenure advocates ‘‘progressive land policies now widely recognized and promoted by international development agencies [such as] provision of secure land rights under a diversity of forms of tenure, including the recognition of customary rights and the devolution of responsibilities for land registration and management to more local levels; promoting land access for disadvantaged groups [etc]’’. In 2008, FAO’s State of Food and Agriculture report that focuses on agrofuels does mention the importance of subsidies paid to ‘‘support to biodiesel and ethanol in 2006 of around US$11–12 billion’’. Incentives for adopting more climate friendly technologies are usually looked from the perspective of paying for environmental services, carbon markets and other financing mechanisms, rather than analyzing the existing incentive framework, not to mention criticizing it and making suggestions on how it should be changed. Financial measures presented are proposed as an additional layer that helps minimize the (unmentioned) negative incentives provided by the existing framework.

When mentioned, policies are mostly presented through the objectives they are supposed to achieve (reduce GHG, improve food security, etc.) but only very rarely in terms of the instruments to be used to created the ‘‘enabling environment’’ that appears recurrently like a mantra that is supposed to say it all but remains a vague background (see for example ‘‘Climate-Smart’’ Agriculture - Policies, Practices and Financing for Food Security, Adaptation and Mitigation FAO’s paper for the 2010 Den Hague Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change).

FAO’s Global Action on Climate Change in Agriculture: Linkages to Food Security, Markets and Trade Policies in Developing Countries, in 2012, stands out as it does raise a major issue which is the widespread subsidy policy on fuels which encourages an energy intensive agriculture and also contributes to make more attractive energy-rich fertilizers that are important contributors to GHG emissions. Let it be recalled here that subsidies on fuels worldwide have been estimated by the IMF in its 2012 paper on Reforming Energy Subsidies at $1.9 trillion (2.7% of world GDP, almost equivalent to the GDP of Italy in 2011), of which $50 billion in India (to be compared with the $20 billion of India’s new Food Security Law).

Similarly, subsidies on fertilizer - on top of the eventual subsidies on the energy used to produce them - constitute in many countries a large share of public expenditure for agriculture. According to OECD, around 15% of OECD countries Producer Support Estimate (PSE) are payments in support to agricultural inputs use including fertilizer as well as other inputs. These payments were of $20 billion in 1986-87 and were of almost $35 billion in 2011. The same year, and according to the OECD, the share of these payments was 50% in Brazil, 13% in China, 12% in Indonesia and 30% in Russia. According to FAO’s MAFAP project, input subsidies (mostly variable inputs such as fertilisers and seeds) represent as share of total agriculture-specific public expenditure roughly one third in Burkina Faso and Mali, and it was up to 43% in Tanzania between 2008 and 2011.

Even the recent (2012) FAO publication on ‘‘Developing a climate-smart agriculture strategy at country level’’ which reviews several country experiences, although it emphasises the need for ‘‘building coherent policies and institutions for effective implementation’’, remains rather vague when it comes to the actual policy and incentive framework that is required for agriculture to make the shift towards a more sustainable and climate-smart agriculture. It all boils down at the end to making general statements on objectives and emiting directives that are not really supported by instruments that are likely to turn their ideas and principles into reality. The paper does mention that ‘‘Policy-makers have a set of tools or instruments, such as rural credit programmes, input and output pricing policies, including input subsidies, property rights, extension services as well as the implementation of safety net programmes, they can apply to change the incentives and capacity of farmers to undertake modifications in their production systems’’. But it falls short in giving indications what that means concretely, making a non-committing addition to say that ‘‘[t]he analysis of the barriers to adoption of CSA practices [...] should give an indication of the how these levers are currently affecting adoption and identify key gaps where new levers are needed’’. Advancing Agroforestry on the Policy Agenda  - A guide for decision-makers (2013) does advocate tax exemptions and direct payments for the development of agroforestry based on the example of Costa Rica, but it does not really analyse and challenge the existing incentive frameworks.

In a world where existing policies tend to provide incentives encouraging a move towards a more input- and energy-intensive agriculture, where research is increasingly managed or financed by private interests, a fundamental change is required if agriculture has to become more climate friendly. This change should include: (i) the progressive removal of subsidies on energy and particularly fuel; (ii) the removal of fertilizer subsidies; and (iii) a reorientation of resources towards public research, and particularly towards the development of locally specific low-input agricultural techniques. These changes would at the same contribute to the reduction of GHG emission by agriculture and benefit to the food security of those farmers, particularly in poor countries, who cannot afford to use input-based technologies. [read]

This points to the reason why the literature remains so vague on policies: to be more specific it would have to challenge the historical orientation of agriculture over the last 50 years towards an industrial input-intensive agriculture and go against very powerful private corporations whose business is to produce and sell inputs to farmers and develop its influence on public research through financial or other partnerships to orient most of its efforts in the same direction. [read more]

It is hoped that some organizations within the Climate-smart agriculture partnership will wake up and engage in analytical work on policies in favour of a transition towards a climate-smart agriculture and provide advocacy and support to changes that appear indispensable if projects, mechanisms and programmes in favour of a more climate-smart agriculture are to be adopted sustainably on a wider scale and to the benefit of the mass of agricultural producers.


Last update:    December 2013

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