Among the many factors that have potentially damaging effects on agricultural outputs worldwide, and consequently on farmers, the issue of climate change (CC) has got to be the most serious. Defined as ‘identifiable changes in prevailing climate (statistically testable) that persist over extended periods of time, usually decades’, CC causes fluctuations in temperature levels, deterioration of soil quality, probable decreases in the quality of yields, rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, and can even bring about wholesale changes in yearly growing seasons. At present, close to 600 million farms across the globe are struggling to cope up with the challenges posed by climate change. It has been estimated that, by 2050, CC will lead to a 11% fall in agricultural output levels, and a whopping 20% rise in average prices. With an eye on improving the sustainability of agriculture, the need of the hour is a gradual reduction of the over-reliance of this sector on climatic factors. That, in turn, brings us to the topic of ‘climate-smart agriculture’, or CSA:
The extent of the problem
Agricultural yields have traditionally depended on the prevailing climate parameters (air temperature, sunlight, humidity, rainfall, etc.). This reliance has always added an air of uncertainty to farming, and has often caused much grief to farmers across the world. The severity of the ‘climate change’ problem is particularly high in countries which already have unfavourable weather/soil conditions. For instance, nearly 1 out of every 3 people in Guatemala suffers from food insecurity, brought about by the uncertainties of agriculture. In Mato Grosso, an apparently minor 1 ° centigrade increase in temperature can bring down annual corn and soy yields by up to 13%. A University of Leeds report has predicted that, farms in temperate and tropical areas will start to be affected (in the form of lowered yields) from 2030, due to 2 ° increases in temperature levels. Making the necessary adjustments/technology integrations to adapt to CC would require hefty investments by the developing/underdeveloped nations, to the tune of $200-$300/year (as estimated by the UNEP). The problem is big, and coping with it is a major challenge.
The concept of climate-smart agriculture
Climate change adversely affects both the quality and quantity of agricultural yields. That, in turn, causes farmers to fall into the trap of food insecurity, and consequent malnourishment and poor quality of life. The prime objective of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) is satisfactorily solving this problem, and delivering food security to everyone concerned. To attain this goal, CSA places prime focus on three factors: i) increases in farm outputs (productivity enhancement), ii) reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, to stall global warming (mitigation enhancement), and iii) boosting the resilience of crops/farms, in the face of climatic vagaries (adaptation enhancement). Interestingly, there are tradeoffs involved among these three factors (often referred to as the ‘3 pillars of CSA’). The challenge lies in integrating climatic elements in the overall agricultural plans, and optimizing the different targets by handling the tradeoff between these 3 factors in the best possible manner.
The importance of geomapping in CSA
Climate-smart agriculture has emerged as a key element of sophisticated agritech standards in general, and the application IoT and sensors in particular. The usage of smart sensors for geomapping (showcasing differences in climate conditions/soil conditions (like temperature, humidity, terrain quality, soil pH value, etc.) across locations by marking them in different colours on a map) is a classic example of this. These farm sensors can be designed to capture real-time data from weather satellites and/or other third-party elements, and send them back to a centralized gateway for detailed analysis. To ensure accurate geomapping and optimal performance of agro-sensors, the cellular network coverage has to be strong (and reliable) enough. Generally, the presence of many tall trees on a farmland can interrupt signals, and hence, cause the sensors to malfunction.
Cost-benefit studies in CSA
Full-scale integration of climate-smart practices involves moderate to heavy expenses – in the form of new tools and gadgets, as well as the need to learn how to optimally use the technological resources. Provided that CSA practices has been implemented properly, the benefits can also be huge – mainly because uncertainties caused by ‘climate change’ will then be out of the picture. In-depth economic analysis is required for this cost-benefit analysis, and to calculate the estimated potential gains from CSA, the net present value (NPV) and internal rate of return (IRR) figures are often referred to. The discount rate for making these calculations is pre-specified (~12%) – representing the money’s social opportunity cost. A viable statistical model has to be created to track ‘crop response’ levels after applying CSA practices on the field. On the cost side, both the one-time installation expenses as well as the flow of maintenance expenses have to be taken into account. The economic feasibility of CSA has already become evident in several locations worldwide. At the Trifinio reserve, for example, the IRR of CSA practices has been in excess of 140%. The results have been even more favourable in Nicaragua, where the cost-benefit ratio has jumped to 1.85 and the IRR rate has jumped to a shade under 180%. Users in Ethiopia have also reported much lower yield variability and ~22% higher outputs as a result of implementing CSA practices.
Note: The IRR rates in Trifinio and Nicaragua were calculated on the basis of vine crops in home gardens. The cost-benefit figure in Nicaragua is with respect to application of practices on basic grains.
The need to reduce GHG emissions
More than 40% of the total emission of greenhouse gases come from agriculture. To ensure the sustainability of farming activities and full food security, reduction of the emission levels is essential. Farmers need to focus squarely on bringing down GHG emissions per unit of produce (kilogram, calorie, etc.), while activities like deforestation have to be done away with as much as possible. Another key requirement in this regard is the management of trees and soil surfaces, so that the latter can serve as reliable ‘carbon sinks’. The livestock sector – which accounts for nearly 15% of the total man-made GHG emissions – has to be examined closely, along with existing rice cultivation techniques. In rice/paddy fields, overwatering (and consequent flooding) is one of the principal causes for rising methane emissions. Hence, lowering the frequency of irrigation and allowing the fields to drain properly are some basic strategies to reduce this methane production level. In general, the heavy use of machines and fertilizers in intensive farming often results in greater release of toxic GHG gases into the environment. One of the biggest sub-domains under CSA is the ‘mitigation’ of such emissions. A ‘greener’ environment will be key to sustainable agriculture.
We have already highlighted how implementation of CSA practices has benefitted farms in several places. Let us here take a look through the most popular ‘CSA practices’ (awareness about CSA was close to 75% by 2014). Using mulch for conservation tillage, with 67% frequency of implementation, is by far the most highly adopted ‘CSA practice’, with agroforestry with hedgerows and crop rotation activities taking up the second and third spots. Other relatively commonly implemented CSA practices include drip irrigation, contour ditch setup, putting up stone barriers, and switching over to heat/pest resistant crop varieties (maize, beans, etc.). The average increase in yields due to application of these practices hovers between the 25% and 40% mark, with conservation tillage and drip irrigation offering the maximum gains. CSA practices are expected to become more refined in future – and the advantages of using them would be even more significant.
Greater adaptability is a key requirement
The global population is rising rapidly, and agricultural outputs have to keep pace with it. Put in another way, we have to produce enough food to feed the rapidly burgeoning population levels (estimated to reach 9.6 billion by 2050). A ~70% spike in food production is required between now and 2050 – and this growth has to take place with ‘sustainable intensification’ (with minimal negative impacts on the environment, and with no adverse effects on production capabilities in future). The importance of making agriculture more ‘resilient’ and adapted to ‘climate change’ is paramount – and that involves the implementation of ‘smart farming’ standards, with advanced, internet-enabled tools and gadgets. Right from optimizing irrigation sessions, to monitoring soil quality/temperature/moisture and weather-related information – everything can be tracked with the help of sensors, examined carefully, and future courses of actions are determined on the basis of such analyses. Over the last couple of years or so, artificial intelligence (AI) and M2M (machine-to-machine) learning have emerged as vital cogs for optimized precision agriculture. For managing sensors, cellular modems/gateways/controllers are used.
Note: For a detailed analysis of smart irrigation tools and practices, read this post.
Challenges to overcome
CSA promises to offer food security and development by increasing agricultural produce and making the sector more sustainable than ever before. However, there are certain bottlenecks that impede the widespread application of CSA practices. For starters, since the gains from moving over to climate-smart farming do not usually become apparent right from the start, many farmowners remain sceptical about the return-on-investment (ROI) factor. In the developing countries, getting farmers acquainted with the necessary technology (computer intelligence and robotics, for example) also remains a considerable challenge. CSA is, by nature, data-driven – and conflicts of interest regarding data-ownership can easily crop up. Also, the low-margin nature of the agricultural sector acts as a barrier to climate-smart agriculture. Many growers view the innovations involved in CSA as ‘risky’ – and hence, remain averse to making investments on the new farming technologies. Thankfully, CSA projects around the world are being backed by public funding – and we should be able to move beyond most of these challenges soon enough.
Emphasis on ‘ecosystems services’
While modernization of agriculture has picked up pace over the past few quarters, the developments have been mostly fragmented – thanks to sectoral approaches taken by the growers. CSA looks to make things more efficient, by making agricultural advancements holistic, with prime focus on integrated plans and management. Under climate-smart agriculture, the importance of the ‘free ecosystems services’ (soil, air, water, etc.) is factored in – and due care is taken to avoid depletion/damage of these resources in any way. As a rule of thumb, CSA practices should focus on bringing about higher outputs, without affecting the quality/availability of these ‘ecosystems services’. Typically, CSA-proponents highlight the need to understand the various interdependencies among resources (soil, water, air, forests, biodiversity management), and follow a ‘landscape approach’ for improving the output levels and making farms more climate-resilient and adaptable. It also has to be kept in mind that CSA is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’, or even a ‘one-size-for-every-time’ solution. Since several related objectives have to be met, the interactions of elements with the overall landscape and ecosystem layers have to be taken into account. A CSA practice that is mighty effective for Farm A can be absolutely useless for Farm B, due to the differences in the ecosystems of the two fields.
CSA and organic farming
Organic farming and climate-smart agriculture differ primarily due to their approaches. In the former, the ‘methods’ of agriculture are specified (avoiding harsh chemical fertilizers and pesticides), while in the latter, the focus is more on the ‘goals of farming’ (namely, food security via higher yields, lower emissions, greater adaptability and sustainability). Interestingly, there are many practices involved in organic farming that are simultaneously ‘climate-smart’ as well. An example in this regard would be the emphasis on boosting organic matter in soil and improvements in natural nutrient cycling in organic farming – activities that help in carbon-preservation in the soil, and make agriculture as a whole more ‘resilient’. Proper nutrition and diet sustainability are two other factors that come under the purview of climate-smart agriculture. Organic farming is closely related to CSA – and if a comparison has to be made between the two, it’s CSA that has the more extensive benefits.
CSA in practice
There are already many instances of successful implementation of CSA practices, in different parts of the world. In Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, dairy production has been intensified with the help of climate-search packages of practices (PoP) – with the benefits percolating to over 200 thousand farmers. The ASI rice thresher in Africa offers heavy economic advantages (easily outweighing its installation costs) – and prevents wastage of rice harvests. In Brazil, the ABC credit-initiative plan is geared to provide loans at low interests to farmers involved in low-carbon farming and other activities related to sustainability. Catfish aquaculture in Vietnam has received a serious thrust, while food-security in Africa has received a shot in the arm with the help of the ‘drought-tolerant maize for Africa’ (DTMA) project. Carbon credits were handed out to poor Kenyan farmers, in a bid to improve their land-management capabilities and standards. It is pretty much evident by these use cases that CSA has multiple points of entry – at different levels, and with varying specific goals.
It would be a folly to view climate-smart agriculture as a rigid set of technological gadgets and practices (although it can involve the application of IoT and robotics in a big way). The essence of CSA lies in seamlessly integrating solutions at the value chain, the food system, the ecosystem & landscape, and even at the policy/decision-making stages. Lowering the gender-gap and empowering women (along with other marginalized groups) is another important benefit of CSA. It has been seen that there is significant involvement of women (~43%) in agricultural activities, although their actual land-ownership figures are much lower. With ‘climate smart practices’, attempts are being made to resolve this problem, and provide everyone with equal opportunities. Coping with ‘climate changes’ effectively is now possible, thanks to the growing popularity of CSA. These practices are ideal for making agriculture more sustainable than ever before.