15 Dec 2011: Report

Can ‘Climate-Smart’ Agriculture
Help Both Africa and the Planet?

One idea promoted at the Durban talks was “climate-smart agriculture," which could make crops less vulnerable to heat and drought and turn depleted soils into carbon sinks. The World Bank and African leaders are backing this new approach, but some critics are skeptical that it will benefit small-scale African farmers.

by fred pearce

The glacial pace of international efforts to curb climate change continued at the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa last week. Governments concluded that by 2015 they should agree on legally binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions that involve all major nations — including China, India and the United States. But they also agreed that those targets would probably not come into force until 2020.

The climate isn’t waiting for the diplomats. Most experts agree that by 2020 it will likely be too late to halt dangerous warming above two degrees Celsius. So the race is now on to find new, unconventional initiatives to fill the gap. One possibility that came to the fore in Durban is fixing some of that carbon dioxide in the soils of Africa. And that is why the continent’s political leaders met in Durban to launch an initiative known, somewhat cryptically, as “climate-smart” agriculture.

The new buzz phrase went down well. Host president Jacob Zuma extolled it. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian former UN secretary-general, praised it as a panacea to Africa’s problems. “Till now agriculture has been sidelined from
Soils worldwide could capture as much as a billion tons of carbon annually.
climate change discussions,” he said. “But Africa has a huge potential to mitigate climate change.” Beside him sat the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the chair of the African Union Commission. They were all on hand as the World Bank announced plans to turn climate-smart agriculture into the next big thing for the world market in carbon offsets.

So what exactly is climate-smart agriculture? It sounds as if it might involve making agriculture resilient to climate change, by making soils and crops less vulnerable to droughts and heat waves. And that is part of the plan. But only part. The real prize — the one that can lure private finance — is the potential for carbon offsetting. If farm soils can be used to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then they can generate carbon credits that can be sold to industrial polluters who want to offset their emissions.

The offer from the world of carbon finance to poor farmers in Africa and elsewhere is this: Let us use your soils to capture carbon from the atmosphere, and we will, in return, make those soils more productive and less vulnerable to the climate.

This is a big deal. Nurturing the organic matter in soils on the world’s farms has as much potential to absorb carbon dioxide emissions from industrialized countries as the much better-known plans to fund forest conservation, such as REDD. Rattan Lal of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center at Ohio State University suggests soils worldwide could capture as much as a billion tons of carbon a year — more than a tenth of man-made emissions.

Climate-smart agriculture neatly combines the twin goals of today’s climate negotiators, helping to prevent climate change while at the same time adapting farms to inevitable change.

Africa is the big prize. Its farmers are more vulnerable than any others to climate change. Some estimates suggest a hotter, more dire world could cut African farm yields by as much as 20 percent by mid-century. Without an
Currently, African soils are leaking carbon as they lose organic matter due to bad farming practices.
African green revolution, that would spell disaster for a continent with a population that is expected to double to two billion people.

But the continent’s huge land area — greater than the U.S., China, India, Mexico and Japan combined — also holds huge potential as a planetary carbon sink that, many believe, could create the necessary green revolution.

Currently, African soils are leaking carbon as they erode and lose organic matter due to bad farming practices. An estimated 43 percent of Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions come from land clearance, including farming. But the same soils could be turned from a carbon source to a carbon sink, absorbing many tens of millions of tons of carbon a year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

If an agricultural carbon offset program were in place, carbon dollars from Western companies could pay for composting, mulching, recycling crop waste, planting farm trees, and much else on the world’s poorest farms. Those improved soils, richer in organic matter, would grow more crops, help soils withstand droughts and floods, and — vital to earning those carbon dollars — capture carbon from the atmosphere.

The World Bank is keen to mastermind a global effort to fix carbon in African soils. It brought agriculture ministers from across the continent to Johannesburg in September to promote the idea and continued to push it in Durban.

For the past year, the bank’s BioCarbon Fund, which sets up demonstration carbon-capturing projects in both forests and farms, has been running the first pilot African soil project among smallholder farmers near Kisumu in western Kenya. The bank’s climate envoy Andrew Steer said in Durban that the maize and bean farmers “are getting higher yields, improving the resilience of the soils to drought and getting stronger soils that sequester more carbon.”

If all goes according to plan, the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project, which covers 40,000 hectares of farmland in a densely population region of the
One critic fears soil carbon offsets will put African farmers ‘under the control of fickle carbon markets.’
country, should capture 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. It could also increase annual farm incomes by $200 to $400 per hectare.

That’s the plan. Will it work? The Stockholm Environment Institute, a think tank that looks at both climate and development issues, is supportive. The institute’s Olivia Taghioff, who has studied the Kenyan scheme, says, “Carbon finance even in modest amounts can make a big difference for smallholders.”

But there are concerns. In Durban, Annan warned: “These efforts must have at their heart smallholder farmers. Without their participation we will fail.” And many critics fear that climate-smart agriculture is in reality a Trojan horse for marginalizing smallholder farmers. They believe the arrival of carbon markets, brokers and traders in the fields of Africa can do nothing but harm.

“Soil carbon offsets will promote a spate of African land grabs and put farmers under the control of fickle carbon markets,” said Teresa Anderson of the UK-based Gaia Foundation, an NGO that promotes indigenous farming, speaking in Durban. “The [World] Bank’s agenda is more money for the bank and for carbon project developers, not development,” said Doreen Stabinsky of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

The high costs of employing scientists, consultants, and field surveyors to assess and monitor the carbon uptake of farm soils will make it impossible for smallholder farmers to pocket any income from the sale of the carbon absorbed by their soils, these critics maintain. Only large landowners will be able to reduce these transactions costs sufficiently to profit from the carbon markets, they say, and the result will be a new phase of land grabbing. “Soil grabbing,” some are calling it.

Across Africa, governments are already leasing wide areas of land traditionally used by smallholder farmers to foreign companies for industrial agriculture or for planting trees as carbon sinks in order to gain carbon credits. The fear is that the process will accelerate if the soil itself becomes a carbon commodity.

There is another reason why peasant farmers may lose out. Early evidence gathered by the World Bank in Kenya suggests that the cultivation of commercial crops of the kind that large agribusinesses specialize in have a much greater potential to soak up carbon than smallholder subsistence crops.


Out of the Demographic Trap:
Hope for Feeding the World

Out of the Demographic Trap: Hope for Feeding the World
In Africa and elsewhere, burgeoning population growth threatens to overwhelm already over-stretched food supply systems. But, Fred Pearce writes, the next agricultural revolution needs to get local — and must start to see rising populations as potentially part of the solution.
Data presented last year at the FAO in Rome by Rama Reddy of the World Bank’s carbon finance unit show that the carbon-capture potential for a hectare of smallholder maize in Kenya is around half a ton of carbon dioxide per year, whereas the potential for commercial biofuels is between 2.5 and 5 tons, and for a sugar cane plantation up to 8 tons per hectare.

The dream of enthusiasts for climate-smart agriculture is that investors will one day invest billions of dollars in the fields of Africa in order to purchase the resulting credits from capturing carbon, while at the same time improving the continent’s soils. In truth, any credible solution to climate change will probably involve finding ways to get the landscape to absorb more carbon, whether in trees or soils, probably financed from carbon markets. Can it be done in a way that helps smallholder farmers? Or will it drive them off their land? That remains far from clear.

POSTED ON 15 Dec 2011 IN Business & Innovation Climate Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Sustainability Africa North America 


This approach does not mention nor include biochar. I suggest this approach will not work - but we know that biochar does sequester carbon for centuries.

why not go that route?

Posted by barnacle bill on 15 Dec 2011

Let the large-scale agribusiness ventures already grabbing up land in Africa benefit by earning carbon credits BUT require that in addition to their costs for entering the program they pay a surcharge to cover the costs of small farmers to participate. For instance, for every hectare an agri-business uses to grow crops for export or biomass they would pay the costs to enroll a hectare owned or controlled by individual or groups of small farmers in the program plus the additional costs for fertilizer and other necessary material and equipment for small farmers to participate.

Posted by Larry Sunderland on 15 Dec 2011

Great piece, Fred!

Interestingly, we posted a closely-related piece yesterday, focusing on just one pilot soil-carbon project in Kenya:


Posted by Steve Zwick on 15 Dec 2011

Excellent article. Organic Farming to conserve the natural fertility of the soil is another option. Plants with multiple uses and drought resistant are to be promoted in the African region.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 15 Dec 2011

What we can do now with "off the shelf" technology, what I proposed at the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, to the EPA chiefs of North America.

The most cited soil scientist in the world, Dr. Rattan Lal at OSU, was impressed with this talk, commending me on conceptualizing & articulating the concept. A Report on my talk at CEC, and complete text & links are here:

The Establishment of Soil Carbon as the Universal Measure of Sustainability

FAO on Conservation Agricultural:
"In general, soil carbon sequestration during the first decade of adoption of best conservation agricultural practices is 1.8 tons CO2 per hectare per year. On 5 billion hectares of agricultural land, this could represent one-third of the current annual global emission of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels (i.e., 27 Pg CO2 per year)." http://www.fao.org/ag/ca/doc/CA_SSC_Overview.pdf

Adding just 1 Ton of Biochar per hectare, (800 lbs / acre), would cover 100% Current Annual Fossil CO2 Emissions.

"Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Potential of Agricultural Land Management in the United States: A Synthesis of the Literature"
An extensive scientific literature review providing a side-by-side comparison of the biophysical greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation potential of more than 40 agricultural land management activities in the United States


Posted by Erich J. Knight on 15 Dec 2011

I guess they tried to convince som midwest farmer to plant tree in his field and change land practice.

They probably got quite scared and went to Africa instead.

Posted by kervennic on 15 Dec 2011

Just like bio-fuels, a few years from now, CSA will be exposed not to be make development sustainable but poverty and hunger sustainable.

I pity Africa for their leaders mortgaging their future for handouts by the West

Read:: 'Climate Smart Agriculture': The new eco-imperialistic tool


Posted by Rajan Alexander on 15 Dec 2011

One way to counter the massive land grabbing in Africa by foreign investors and foster small holding-based smart agriculture is through policies and initiatives that promote resilient farmers’ cooperatives.

Posted by Fouti Franco on 16 Dec 2011

I continue to be astonished at the staying power of a little book published in 1943, at great risk, by the U. of Oklahoma press, entitled Plowman's Folly" by Edward H. Faulkner. It was the tail end of the calamitous "Dust Bowl" era when Faulkner squarely blamed the 'moldboard' plow for the disastrous pillage of the soil.

“The fact is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing", he said.

Exquisitely, "Plowman's Folly" is to be released as a 'paperback' on February 20, 2012....


Posted by Stanley Scharf on 16 Dec 2011

Anyone else a bit unsettled about undertaking grand experiments using people living on the brink of starvation? Shouldn’t such grand experiments be first carried out and proved elsewhere before risking more death and suffering. I hardly think the “dream” of the hungry is that in some future they might- considering the pervasive corruption- sell carbon credits. The post does not tell us how the hungry are to survive between now and the realization of the “dream.” Nor does it tell us what responsibility the carbon traders will assume if the experiment fails and finds the population more desperate than they are now. Shouldn’t we – as a pre-condition-actually know whether this strategy will drive small farmers off their land?

One would think the people who are actually at immediate mortal risk have a much greater need for an answer to the UG99 stem rust, the lack of reliable water, fertilizer, energy and other near term needs. These are more likely the African dreams- unfortunately making a buck off their land selling carbon credits seems to be an all too common Western one.

Posted by Patrick Moffitt on 16 Dec 2011

Throughout history, societies have had to release large portions of their population from the drudgery of subsistence farming in order to provide a work force for burgeoning industry. You folks appear to be trying to bind these poor in third world countries to their land in perpetuity to satisfy your need to feel good about controlling the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. This is nothing but a modern version of the Aztec ritual of throwing virgins into the volcano to placate the angry gods. You are damning peoples who need freedom from their subsistence agrarian economies to eternal serfdom in order to placate your precious goddess Gaia.

I see no difference between the outcomes of the two religions. I like neither of them. The Aztecs had no data to show that the gods were angry or that human sacrifice placated them. You Pantheists have no data that show that carbon dioxide is a significant cause of the warming climate or that reducing carbon dioxide concentrations will affect the warming in any way.

Posted by Snorbert Zangox on 19 Dec 2011

"The Eleventh Commandment"

"Thou shalt inherit the holy earth as a faithful steward conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation. Thou shalt safeguard thy fields from soil erosion, thy living waters from drying up, thy forests from desolation, and protect thy hills from overgrazing by the herds, that thy descendants may have abundance forever. If any shall fail in this stewardship of the land, thy fruitful fields shall become sterile stony ground or wasting gullies, and thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish from off the face of the earth.

""The Eleventh Commandment" written and broadcast over the radio by, American soil conservationist, Dr. Lowdermilk in Jerusalem during June 1939 was dedicated to the Palestinian Jewish villages whose good stewardship of the earth inspired this idea."
Dr. Walter Clay Lowdermilk , "Palestine Land of Promise published in 1944.

Posted by Stan Scharf on 20 Dec 2011

As members of a group working on economic and policy innovations for climate smart agriculture (EPIC) at the FAO, we found this article quite interesting, and also of concern. Our main concern is that due to misunderstandings about the concept of climate smart agriculture, a tremendous opportunity to design ways of addressing and financing development, food security and climate change together will be lost, with isolated approaches potentially causing perverse outcomes for all three.

1) Climate smart agriculture involves multiple objectives: we need changes in agricultural systems to respond to climate change impacts (e.g. adaptation) as well as reducing emissions (e.g. mitigation) in the overall context of achieving food security and poverty reduction.

2) Achieving food security iand development are priorities for agricultural change in least developed countries. Improving agricultural productivity and resilience is the key to achieving these priorities in most LDCs. Projected impacts from climate change in these countries imean adaptation is a necessity.

3) Mitigation is a secondary objective for LDCs, but can also represent an important source of finance to support agricultural development and adaptation objectives.

4) Increasing soil carbon stocks has benefits for food security, adaptation and mitigation in many circumstances. Increasing soil carbon stocks by changing tillage, using rotations and increasing biomass returned to the soil generates improvements in crop yields and resilience to drought/flooding (adaptation), and it also contributes to mitigation through soil carbon sequestration.

5) Carbon markets are only one form of mitigation finance – there is also the possibility of financing mitigation actions in agriculture in developing countries through Nationally Appropriate Mitigation actions (NAMAS) that are under discussion in UNFCCC talks. Support for NAMAs could involve public sector finance for mitigation actions that are not offsets for developed country emissions reductions.

6) The mitigation benefits that widespread improvements in African soil carbon stocks could generate could be recognized and financed –as a voluntary contribution from LDCs that is funded through public climate financing. Offsets from soil carbon sequestration for carbon markets are not feasible in most LDC situations due to lack of information and high transactions costs – therefore building publically financed schemes is a better option in most cases.

7) Climate smart agriculture is thus not seen uniquely as means for mitigation but rather as a context-specific approach to the multiple benefits that agriculture is expected to provide (livelihoods/poverty reduction, food security, sustainable natural resource management, adaptation and mitigation). All of these benefits are not possible all of the time, but agriculture can offer in some places, some of the time, multiple benefits for farmers, their communities and countries, while difficult trade-offs are often involved. Climate financing could play a role in enabling implementation of such an approach.

You can find more about these ideas in our just released publication: Climate change mitigation finance for smallholder agriculture : a guide book to harvesting soil carbon sequestration benefits ttp://www.fao.org/climatechange/29763-0daebeae838c70f713da780982f16e8d9.pdf and more generally about climate smart agriculture at: http://www.fao.org/climatechange/73769/en/ and http://www.fao.org/climatechange/climatesmart/en/

Leslie Lipper and Wendy Mann for the FAO EPIC team

Posted by Wendy Mann on 24 Dec 2011

Here's someone with a better idea for producing food:


Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 10 Jan 2012

“The new buzz phrase went down well. Host president Jacob Zuma extolled it ... Beside him sat the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the chair of the African Union Commission. They
were all on hand ... the next big thing for the world market in carbon offsets ... The real prize — the one that can lure private finance ... This is a big deal ... It brought agriculture ministers from across the continent to Johannesburg ...”

One can just picture the scene all of them staring into space, thinking ‘Another Mercedes, a fourth wife, a shopping spree at Harrods, a new bank account in Zurich.’

When will the development gurus ever learn that the common people of Africa NEVER benefit from ANY of these schemes?

Posted by Nick Downie on 18 Feb 2012

As noted in one prior post, the addition of biochar to soils increases soil fertility and efficiently accomplishes carbon sequestration even on smallholder farms. Counter-desertification, such as being accomplished in the Thar Desert of NW India, is also an efficient way to increase food production while accomplishing carbon sequestration on a large-scale. Our charity, NPI, is preparing to demonstrate both the above concepts in Kenya.

Posted by David Nuttle on 23 Apr 2012

Concerned environmentalists and subsistence farmers should be made aware of " Fertilizer Trees ", of the Gliricidia Sepium variety. Hardy, drought resistant. This and similar trees are nitrogen fixers, increase crop yields, reclaim a variety of soils while providing fodder for livestock, as well as fuel for cooking. (more info from ICRAFT )


Posted by Dr.William Dahl M.D. on 02 Jan 2013

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Pearce has written about the environmental consequences of humankind’s addiction to chemical fertilizers and the possible role that airborne microbes play in our world, from spreading disease to possibly changing the climate.



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